Nick Taylor of the U.S. quad team will find himself matched up once again against Japan's Shota Kawano, several months after Taylor beat him at the 2012 World Team Cup.
© Jeremiah Yolkut
By Steve Goldberg, special to USTA.com
With a cold, wet wind blowing outside, the draw for the London 2012 Paralympic Tennis tournament was held at Eton Manor. International Tennis Federation (ITF) President Francesco Ricci Bitti joined with International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Executive Director Xavi Gonzalez and London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Ltd. (LOCOG) Director of Sport Debbie Jevans to welcome the players, coaches, officials and guests to the only facility that was specifically built for the Paralympic Games, and which will be a legacy tennis facility for the area going forward.
Prior to the draw, former Dutch star Monique Kalkman, two gold and one silver Paralympic medals in her career, was presented with the 2012 Brad Parks award, which she received from the award’s namesake. Parks, a wheelchair tennis pioneer in the 1970’s, was a founder of the first true wheelchair tennis organization that eventually ceded responsibility for the game to the ITF.
Also attending was former Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff, whose Cruyff Foundation has supported the Silver Fund, an initiative of the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Department to provide children and adults with disabilities in developing countries with opportunities to participate in sport both competitively and recreationally.
USA coach Dan James had already acknowledged that a good draw would be necessary to help his team move as deep into the tournament as possible. A good portion of that would come from avoiding the Netherlands and Japan on day one.
The U.S. women managed to dodge Dutch danger in the first round.
20th ranked Emmy Kaiser is on the same side as the indomitable world number one and six-time US Open winner Esther Vergeer. Kaiser would love to meet Vergeer, because that would put her in the semifinal. Yet first she will look to dispatch Korea’s Myung-Hee Hwang, no. 33 in the world. Success there would give her the task of possibly facing Great Britain’s Lucy Shuker, the eight seed, who will see great support from the 5,000 home town fans in the Centre Court stand. They played last May in the BNP Paribas 2012 World Team Cup with Shuker improving to a perfect 7-0 in their head-to-head matchups.
Mackenzie Soldan drew a familiar opponent in Columbia’s Johana Martinez Vega, whom she’s played three times thus far in her young career. The University of Alabama student lost all of those but the last one, the quarterfinals of the 2011 Parapan American Games qualifier that stamped her ticket to London. It was her first win in four tries against Martinez. Her second round opponent would most likely be Vergeer’s doubles partner, the #5 seed Marjolein Buis, whom she’s never played.
"We go three sets every time so I think it’s a good match to start off with, to shake the nerves a little bit," said Soldan. "The key for me is to focus on one point at a time and not get overwhelmed."
In doubles, Soldan and Kaiser will face Germany’s Sabine Ellerbrock and Katharina Kruger.
24-year-old men’s player Noah Yablong avoided the seeds, getting a first round match versus Nigerian Wasiu Yusuf with the chance of facing third seed Maikel Scheffers next. Steve Baldwin gets a big test right off facing no. 12 Takashi Sanada of Japan.
Jon Rydberg opens with a bout against Argentine Augustin Ledesma. These are first time face-offs for the Americans. Steve Welch rounds out the men’s singles against Sydwell Mathonsi, a South African who he bested 6-0, 7-6 in the Sion Indoor last year.
Yablong will team with Baldwin against the sixth seeded Swedish pair of Stefan Olsson and Peter Vikstorm while Welch and Rydberg defend the honor of the USA and UTA -- the University of Texas-Arlington -- against the Brazilians Mauricio Pomme and Carlos Santos.
David Wagner, top seed in the quad bracket, drew Lucas Sithole of South Africa. Their only previous match was in 2010, a quick two set win for Wagner.
"It’s a nerve-wracking day for everybody and it is what it is, just one match at a time," said the two-time gold medalist. "It’s hard; everybody’s gunning for that spot.
"You can only have one number one, right? I feel good and I feel ready."
His doubles teammate Nick Taylor will open against Japan’s Shota Kawano. Taylor won their match in the World Team Cup a month ago without much trouble, yet was nonetheless pragmatic about his opponent: "It’s the Paralympics -- everybody’s here. There wasn’t going to be an easy first round."
Unfortunately, a rematch of Wagner and Taylor’s bronze medal match in Beijing would come in the semifinals this time around. The third American in, Bryan Barten, is on the other side of the bracket, opening against Marco Innocenti of Italy.
"I’m very happy with my draw," said Barten. "I’ve played Marco once in my career. I lost. It was a three setter in Belgium a few years ago but it was very competitive and I like my chances against him."
They played once in 2010, with Innocenti winning in three sets, 6-2, 4-6, 2-6.
In the quad doubles, Taylor and Wagner will open defense of their Beijing and Athens gold medals against the winner of Noam Gershony and Shraga Weinberg from Israel versus Sweden’s Anders Hard and Marcus Johnson, following a bye in the first round.
Play begins on Saturday with weather predicted to be clear but cloudy and a high around 70 degrees, something else for the Americans to feel good about.