Defending US Open Quad champion & two-time Paralympic gold medalist David Wagner leads the charge for Team USA.
Emmy Kaiser has ratcheted up her training in 2012 in preparation for a Paralympic run in London.
© Jeremiah Yolkut
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
The world’s top professional and amateur wheelchair tennis competitors will bring their big games to the Bayou beginning Wednesday, March 21, as the 23rd annual Cajun Classic Tennis Tournament kicks off in Baton Rouge, La., and for defending US Open quad champion David Wagner, it’s a chance to go back and celebrate a seminal moment in his storied career.
"This Cajun Classic for me presents a rich history because it was my first event in the open division as a professional," said Wagner, the Hillsboro, Ore., native who debuted in 2001. In the decade since, the current International Tennis Federation (ITF) world No. 2 player has won the event multiple times, including last year’s Classic, when he defeated longtime doubles partner Nick Taylor in straight sets.
Seven of the top-10 quad players in the world – including Wagner and Taylor – will do battle for $25,000 in prize money and precious rankings points at the Paula G. Manship YMCA's Lamar Tennis Center in Baton Rouge. In all, 128 professional and amateur players from 21 nations have registered to play in the Cajun Classic, which is sanctioned by both the ITF and USTA.
The ITF Series 1 event is part of ITF’s NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour, in which men’s, women’s and quad players compete for more than $1 million in prize money in tournaments throughout the world. Adding to the stakes is also the fact that the Classic will air on the Cox Communications cable network, marking the first time a wheelchair tennis tournament will feature broadcast coverage in a regional market.
"Anytime I get to compete, I love it," said Wagner. "I love training and the opportunity to showcase what I’ve been doing from the very first round on to the final and hopefully winning the whole thing.
"Being on TV, that’s a step in the right direction and good for the sport. Anytime you can get more exposure and positive publicity and also get people on the local level interested to come see wheelchair tennis – to enjoy it, to maybe get involved with it – you’ve done something phenomenal."
"The USTA is proud to continue its support for the Cajun Classic, which is truly a world-class event," said Dan James, National Manager Wheelchair Tennis, USTA. "For many years, the Baton Rouge community has come out to cheer on the world’s top professional wheelchair tennis players, and it’s phenomenal to see how the tournament has grown and how it plays an impact in the area."
Emmy Kaiser, No. 20 in the ITF women’s ranks, is gunning for a deep run in the ladies’ draw after bowing out in the second round in 2011. The pride of Fort Mitchell, Ky., knows the prestige behind the Classic and always feels welcome in Louisiana.
"One of my favorite (tournaments), for sure. The volunteers are great, the food is good, and it's always fun there, no matter what’s going on," said the 21-year-old Kaiser, who manages a tour schedule while still enrolled in college.
Now, with more time to focus on tennis and the 2012 London Paralympic qualifiers in her sights, Kaiser began the year with a renewed intensity towards training, pedaling upwards of 15 miles a day, five days a week on her upper-body exercise bike to stay physically primed for the season. A couple of wins against world-class competition in the Classic on home soil would be the ultimate positive reinforcement.
"I feel good about where I’m at right now," said Kaiser. "I was doing (the training) just here and there before December, but I’m definitely making it my priority to get in better shape. I have seven tournaments between now and qualifying to be at my best."
Players of note in the tournament include::
- Seven of the top-10 women in the world, including No. 2 Aniek Van Koot, No. 3 Jiske Griffioen and No. 4 Marjolein Buis, all of the Netherlands, and No. 5 Sabine Ellerbrock of Germany.
- Seventeen of the top-25 men in the world, including No. 1 Maikel Scheffers of the Netherlands, No. 2 Stephane Houdet and No. 4 Nicolas Peifer, both of France, No. 9 Satoshi Saida of Japan and No. 22 Stephen Welch of Fort Worth, Texas.
- Seven of the top-10 quadriplegic men and women in the world, including No. 2 David Wagner of Hillsboro, Ore., No. 3 Noam Gershony of Israel, No. 4 Andrew Lapthorne of Great Britain and No. 5 Nicholas Taylor of Wichita, Kan.
Play begins Wednesday, March 21, at 8 a.m. CT at the YMCA and concludes Sunday, March 25, with the finals of both men’s and women’s divisions. The finals will begin at 10 a.m. CT Sunday and will be televised by Cox Communications on Cox4 beginning Monday. Admission to the tournament is free for all days and all matches, including the finals.
The Cajun Classic is produced by the Baton Rouge Wheelchair Tennis Association, a non-profit, volunteer board that raises funds to pay for the required ITF-badged referee and umpire fees, meals, drinks, transportation, accommodations at the host hotel, player party, programs and wheelchair repair station.