Jon Rydberg of Team USA looks to notch a few more big wins in now his 11th appearance World Team Cup competition.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Jon Rydberg did his part in getting the U.S. men's squad back to the level of elite nations in Wheelchair Tennis in 2011 before an emergency flight back to the States. This year, he wants to stick around and lead the Americans as they return to World Group I and look to finish amongst the best in the sport.
The two-time Paralympian from Oakdale, Minn., received the biggest news of his life at the World Team Cup in South Africa last April as the Americans prepared to face Chile in the World Group II semifinal. During Rydberg's warmup, U.S. Men's Head Coach Dan James walked right onto the court, holding up and waving a cell phone.
Though James' gesture wasn't expected, Rydberg wasn't surprised. He knew what this meant.
At the age of 33, he had become a father for the first time.
"Everyone -- my wife, the midwife -- said it was going to be fine, that I shouldn't worry about being away for the two-and-a-half weeks," said Rydberg. "The opponent had no idea what was going on as I grabbed for the phone. I almost got hit with the ball. Then, with phone in hand, I'm trying to explain to the other team what was going on, while my wife is on the other end of the line. It was quite an eventful series of moments!"
Rydberg completed his early-morning match and then made straight for the nearest international airport in Johannesburg, where he waited until around 8 p.m. to catch a plane back to Minnesota by way of Atlanta. After 21 straight hours of anxious flying and layovers, an overjoyed Rydberg laid eyes on wife Sarah and their newborn son, Atticus.
2011 was Rydberg's men's team-leading 10th appearance in World Team Cup competition, and he excelled on the courts in Tshwane, winning all three of his matches in straight sets over Morocco, Israel and Chile, respectively. If not for the life-changing circumstance, it is fair to wonder if the U.S., which finished second, may have gone undefeated in South Africa. Minus the red-hot Rydberg, the short-handed duo of Stephen Welch and Paul Moran lost the World Group II final to Japan, 2-0. The U.S. tandem rebounded on the tournament's final day, winning a special promotion/relegation tie with Thailand's World Group I team with a shutout of their own, 2-0.
The performance was a marked improvement from the U.S. team's fifth-place showing in World Group II the 2010 WTC in Turkey and moved them back into the upper-tier play bracket for the first time since 2009. Rydberg and Welch are the holdovers for the 2012 U.S. men, with two new faces -- 40-year-old Steve Baldwin and 23-year-old Noah Yablong -- rounding out the team.
"The Japanese, the Dutch, France -- all of these are really good teams that we will have to compete with," said Rydberg. "It's a real positive sign that we get all four divisions to qualify enough playersfor the World Team Cup -- the men's, the women's, quad and juniors. Not every country can claim that.
"Collectively, we're all about improvement. Speaking of the men's team specifically, we have a full roster, which we didn't have last year. Now in World Group I, it's understood that we'll need to be at our best, no question. We can win some matches, but it's an even bigger battle to take two-out-of-three in this company."
Fatherhood is but one of the new challenges Rydberg faces in 2012, as he aspires once more to become one of the top players in the world in spite of a reduced schedule, particularly in a Paralympic year. Rydberg cites in the last 12 months that he has played "10 or 11 tournaments, when normally around this time, I ratchet it up to 16 or so," getting ready for his third Paralympic Games in London this September.
"I've cut down my schedule immensely," described Rydberg. "I'm trying to only travel when it's most convenient for the family or go to places where I can possibly take them with me."
If any rust had accumulated on Rydberg's wheels, it hasn't slowed his championship-caliber play. The former No. 1 International Tennis Federation (ITF) ranked American men's player in the world took some paternity leave from May to July 2011, then returned to win his first tournament back at the ITF 3 Series Midwest Championships in Grand Rapids, Mich., followed by a gold medal with Welch in doubles at November's Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, once more representing the U.S in an international team competition.
Most recently, Rydberg battled current world No. 1 men's singles player Maikel Scheffers to three thrilling sets in the final of the ITF 1 Series Atlanta Open, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, a performance which helped vault Rydberg up from No. 47 to No. 29 in the current rankings. Of all the players in the top 30, only Japan's Shingo Kuneida (5) and Sweden's Peter Vikstrom (10) have played in less than Rydberg's 11 tournaments that count towards the ITF rankings.
Even with the triumphs, it has been hard for the world-class, globetrotting tennis champion to be away from his budding family.
"You learn that certain things have to be sacrificed," said Rydberg, who also is involved with teaching the game as coach of East Ridge High School's girls' varsity team in nearby Woodbury, Minn. "Luckily, I have an understanding support system that believes in me. It's the type of career that only lasts so long, so I want to take advantage of it while I can. Once it's over, it's over, and then I can dedicate 100 percent of my time to the family."
The heavy training for London is still "a while off." This trip to Seoul for Rydberg will be a chance to enjoy some time with teammates, play in one of his favorite annual events and soak in some culture. It is just the latest stop on the road trip that began at the age of 15 -- the trip that's winding down and will end sooner than later.
"We've been in China and Japan, but never South Korea. First trip -- it's exciting," said Rydberg. "I just got home from two tournaments over the weekend, and now I'm trying to get the family in order, taking care of some housework. I'm looking forward to finally getting some reading done about the country, probably while I'm waiting in the airport through the magic of smart phones."
Steve Baldwin - San Diego, Calif.
Jon Rydberg - Oakdale, Minn.
Stephen Welch - Southlake, Texas
Noah Yablong - Tucson, Ariz.
Coach: Dan James
2011 Result: 2nd place, World Group II
Emmy Kaiser - Ft. Mitchell, Ky.
Mackenzie Soldan - Louisville, Ky.
Kaitlyn Verfuerth - Tucson, Ariz.
Coach: Paul Walker
2011 Result: 8th place
A youthful trio -- their oldest player, Verfuerth, is 26 -- this U.S. group is out to take its first World Team Cup since 1994. To have any chance against the heavily favored Netherlands - who have known only first-place finishes in this millennium - not to mention the rest of a very competitive international field, the American women will have to play at the very apex of their ability.
A key confidence boost: Soldan and Kaiser are coming off a decorated showing at the 2011 ParaPanAm Games, where the two won gold in women's doubles and later faced off in the singles final, with Soldan taking the gold and Kaiser winning silver.
David Wagner - Chula Vista, Calif.
Nick Taylor - Wichita, Kan.
Bryan Barten - Tucson, Ariz.
Coach: Jason Harnett
2011: 1st place
The defending champions return their entire championship-winning group from 2010 and 2011, featuring two players ranked in the top 5 in the ITF: 2011 Australian and US Open Quad singles champion and current world No. 1 Wagner and former world No. 1 Taylor (currently No. 5). Rounding out the trio is Barten, ranked No. 8 by the ITF in singles and No. 6 in doubles. A win in 2012 would make six titles in the last eight years since 2005, finishing no lower than second place in all eight tournaments.
Shelby Baron - Honolulu, Hawaii
Chris Herman - Gulfport, Fla.
Kate Stuteville - Colleyville, Texas
Coach: John Devorss
2011 Result: 3rd place
If the 2012 U.S. Junior team is to take home a title for the first time since 2000 -- also the first year in which the junior competition was featured at a WTC -- great contributions must come from a young roster featuring two players in their second year of WTC play, Stuteville and Baron, and a rising rookie in 14-year-old Chris Herman. Baron had a strong showing in South Africa, winning three matches in round-robin play as the U.S. finished third overall in Group A.