David Wagner wants his No. 1 ranking back.
At the Australian Open in January, Wagner lost in the finals and dropped to the No. 2 ranking in the quadriplegic singles division.
Although Wagner seems to have secured a ticket to the London 2012 Paralympic Games, with the top-40 ranked players qualifying by May, he refuses to settle for less than being the world’s best. He has a chance to earn enough points to reclaim the top seed at his upcoming matches – Japan Open and World Team Cup in May – and give himself a good position to win his first-ever Paralympic gold medal in singles competition.
On Sunday, Wagner defeated No. 1 U.K.’s Peter Norfolk to win his third straight Florida Open, which was also his 12th career Super Series title.
The two-time Paralympian won silver in Athens. Then, at Beijing in 2008, he had to defeat fellow teammate Nick Taylor (ranked No. 5 in quad singles) for the bronze medal. The irony for both Wagner and Taylor is that they are also doubles partners and won gold together at the 2004 and 2008 Games.
Wagner talked about that irony, his preparation for London and more.
How do you stay competitive in your matches leading to London, knowing that you unofficially have a spot in the 2012 Paralympics?
DW: "I want to be No. 1; I want to be the best. I don’t want to just go through the motions. So I’m training not just, obviously, for the Games. I’m training between now and then to be the No. 1 seed for the Games, to keep my seeding for the Games because the seeds are important as well. So I have small goals in between, with the major goal of winning the Paralympics."
This will be your third Paralympic Games. How different does this year feel than your past Games years?
DW: "In disabled sports, I think the Paralympics is the pinnacle of what everybody is competing for. Fortunately for us, tennis, we’ve got Grand Slams, which, inside of the tennis community, are probably more important than the Paralympics.
As far as tennis itself, you hear of Roland Garros, Wimbledon, Australian Open, U.S. Open, those four majors are of the utmost important in the tennis community. So for the last three years, it’s been gearing up for each Grand Slam event, and you try to peak at those events.
So this year, you throw in the Grand Slam, and you also add in the Paralympics, so it’s a special year. Any time you’ve got another major event which happens to be one that comes every four years, it’s great."
Can you relive your first Paralympic Games back in 2004 in Athens?
DW: "It was a dream come true. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you’re in the match. And obviously that’s why you play it. I had a tough battle with Nick in the semifinals (singles) for a chance to play for the silver or gold medal. It’s definitely just a dream come true to not only bet here competing, but also to be at the top of the game and be in the hunt for a medal and then contention for a medal. Going in, I think I already had higher expectations because I had already been established as a high player. But you never know with our sport what can happen. Anyone can beat anyone."
What it was like to play against Nick in the singles and then later team up in doubles?
DW: "We’re probably a little better at it than others because it happens to us all the time. I play against Nick in almost every single tournament we go to. I’m either going to play him in the semis or the finals because he’s usually the four seed and I’m usually the one or two seed. And we still have doubles later in the tournament. So we’re familiar with that happening.
Now obviously that sucks because you want to see as many Americans with medals as possible in the Paralympics. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s another person on the other side of the court that is trying to prevent you from doing your job, which is to win.
When I’m playing him, I don’t look at it as if it’s Nick Taylor, my doubles partner. I just look at it as it’s my next person in competition."
Describe chemistry between you and Nick on and off the court.
DW: "First and foremost, we’re friends, and we enjoy each other’s company. We talk outside of tennis, not just about tennis but about life and others things as well. So I think that gives a healthy balance, not just tennis, tennis, tennis.
And on the court, our chemistry is just as good. We’ve played together since 2003, and we gel together. Like I said, with our game style, his style of play, staying back and hitting the ball deep and driving the ball through the court allows me to be aggressive and offensive at the net."
What sports did you play growing up?
DW: Before I got hurt, I was really into basketball. And I loved basketball more than anything. In high school, I played on the basketball team and golf team. And after graduating high school, I took a little time off from basketball.
Then I decided to do a little tennis when I was with the community college out there in Walla Walla, Wash. They had open tryouts, and I went in and tried out. I did well. I made the team, and I played No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles for the community college team. I had never played tennis in my life. I was just really athletic, and I enjoyed sports; it just comes naturally for me."
So you never picked up a racquet before college?
DW: "I wouldn’t say I never picked up a racquet. I remember being a kid and being on the tennis courts and trying to hit home runs over the fence. I never took a racquet and sat down to learn how to serve or hit a forehand or play tennis, so to speak. But I enjoy watching sports, so when the Grand Slams were on, I’d enjoy watching them."
Was your family very athletic as well?
DW: "I have a (older) sister, and my mother and father were both extremely athletic and extremely musical. My sister got all of my parent’s musical talent, and I got all of my parent’s athletic talent. I am the least musical person in the world probably but extremely athletic. And my sister is the least athletic person in the world but extremely musical."
For someone very athletic to become paralyzed, what was it like then when you were 21 and had your injury? What happened that day?
DW: "My buddy and I were on the beach, and I ran into the water and got tossed around by the wave. I landed on my neck and became paralyzed.
At first, I didn’t know what went on until my buddy pulled me out of the ocean and put me on the sand. I was just lying there, trying to figure out what was going on. And I just kept saying, ‘Oh I just have a stinger, and in a while I’ll be back to normal and be back up. Let my lie here and shake it off a bit.’
Obviously that never happened, and I think it’s shock when you’re extremely athletic and sports is a big part of your life that it feels like it’s taken away from you, and it can never happen again.
The fortunate part for me was that I had friends and family who visited me in rehabilitation, and they would treat me the same as before I had my accident. They would tease me, and we would try to do the same things that we had done before.
One of the biggest things was when my buddies would come and visit me in the hospital, and we would go play ping pong. I could be competitive and be in a tough battle against them, and it brought back that competitive, athletic spirit in me. It was great because I could do something I used to do with the other guys when we played sports."
How did you get introduced to wheelchair tennis?
DW: "I was with my girlfriend at the time, and she was a tennis player, and I saw an ad in Sports N’ Spokes magazine of a wheelchair tennis team being in Portland, Ore. Of course, once I saw that ad, I knew I was going.
My girlfriend and I went out and tried to hit tennis balls, but I had no idea what I was doing. I was in my everyday chair. I didn’t have any assistive advices or anything to help me in any way, shape or form, didn’t know how to hold the racquet. I was just trying to do everything the way I did before.
I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. Paraplegics don’t play tennis.’ But then in 1999, I went to that wheelchair tennis camp, and it was the U.S. Paralyzed Veterans of America tennis camp, where Dan James, Rick Draney and Randy Snow, who are all kind of the pioneers to USA wheelchair tennis, were there. I was able to learn from them. I was able to learn from the best of the best in the business at the time and probably in the history of the sport."
What are your plans after the Games? Do you plan to do anything with your elementary education degree?
DW: "No, I don’t think I will teach. I don’t know that for a fact. That’s just my thought right now. I’d love to maybe get into some coaching and train some players and get involved with tennis because I do love the sport. It’s given so much to me, and I want to give some back.
I don’t think I’m close to being done yet. I think there’s so much more I can play, and hopefully I can stay healthy and peak in 2016."
Do you have any rituals before and/or during matches?
DW: "I don’t really have any ritual that I do every single time. But I guess the only ritual I would say I try to do is if where we’re playing has a nice locker room and shower, I would take a shower before my match. I like to be refreshed after practice and warming up. But I’m not a guy who puts his headphones on and listens to music. I just kind of prepare with my warm up, focus on who I’m playing, and the task at hand."
Who was your role model growing up?
DW: "For me, growing up, like most people’s role model, was Michael Jordan. I really followed his career, and I loved how he tried to be the best he could be. So as far as my role model in athletics, it’d be him. And then my role model in life, I would say, is my mom."
Is there a Paralympian who has inspired you?
DW: "Yeah, for sure. Randy Snow, and his ability to dominate in tennis and do so well in basketball as well. Rick Draney, who is another athlete on top of the tennis world and got a gold medal in rugby in Sydney in 2000."
If you could play any other sport besides wheelchair tennis, what would it be?
DW: "I would like to play golf professionally."
How about a Paralympic sport?
DW: "I think downhill snow skiing. Sounds pretty cool, but I’ve never done it, yet. I plan on it. I just want to wait when I’m done competing because I don’t want to get hurt. Wheelchair rugby is also a good sport."
What was your favorite place you’ve traveled to, and where else would you like to go?
DW: "One of my favorite places is Belgium. We had a tournament out there. And I loved Australia. Those are my two favorite places to be.
One of the places I would really like to go is Russia. And for some reason, the Arctic has always intrigued me, but then again, there’s not a whole lot of tennis there."
What’s your favorite food?
DW: "Probably ice cream."
DW: "Anything with chocolate."
Any special toppings to go with it?
DW: "Just chocolate with more chocolate and more chocolate and more chocolate."
Of all the places you’ve been to, which has the best food?
DW: "I would say the Belgium chocolates. Put some chocolate on a waffle, and it’s pretty good."
Wagner will play at these tournaments before the London 2012 Paralympic Games: Atlanta Open (May 9-13); Japan Open (May 14-19); World Team Cup (May 21-27); and French Open (June 26-July 1).