Nick Taylor retires
from wheelchair tennis
Victoria Chiesa | November 6, 2021
One of the most decorated tennis careers in history came to an end on Saturday at the UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, as Nick Taylor played his last professional wheelchair tennis match. After a victory on Thursday secured Taylor and partner David Wagner near-improbable berth in the quad doubles final, their effort to win a record-extending 12th title at the tournament fell short against the top-seeded Dutch pairing of Sam Schroder and Niels Vink, 6-0, 6-1.
An 11-time Grand Slam champion and five-time Paralympic medalist to go along with his Masters successes, Taylor’s on-court accomplishments make him a bona fide candidate for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.—a world away when he first starting playing tennis nearly 30 years ago against his garage door, when he admittedly “didn’t even know that wheelchair tennis existed at all.”ADVERTISEMENT
“It was a slow build, and eventually, I started figuring it out… but when I first started, I could hardly hit a ball five feet,” says Taylor, who was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita and uses a specialized, motorized wheelchair.
“I was playing high school tennis [with able-bodied players] when [Paralympian] Randy Snow came to Wichita to put on a wheelchair tennis clinic. I learned about wheelchair tennis at that point. I went from, at noon that day, being told by my friends that there was a wheelchair tennis clinic and telling them they were just being mean and that there was no such thing as wheelchair tennis; to, by 3 o'clock, going, ‘Wow, there really is a clinic.’ I was 14 … I saw him hit two balls and went, ‘Holy crap, OK. This is not anywhere near what I would’ve imagined.’
“I remember watching Rick Draney, a legend of the quad division, play when I went to my first wheelchair US Open in Irvine, Calif. and played in the beginner quad division. I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to compete with that,’ and then later [in 1997], I played him at that tournament. Even though I lost, I competed well with him, and [in 1999], I beat Brian Hanson, who had been No. 1 in the world [in ‘97], 6-0, 6-0. It was those two things that really said to me, ‘I really can do this.’”
Two defining aspects of Taylor’s game, honed by years of practice, made him unique on tour and got him to world No. 1 in both singles and doubles: a literal ‘kick’ serve, in which he tossed the ball up using his foot, and topspin forehand lobs from the baseline using a racquet chained to his hand.
Pairing these strengths with Wagner’s volleys made the two a formidable doubles duo, and while there was no one else that he would’ve wanted by his side for his grand finale on home soil, Taylor says that he and the man he now describes as “like a brother” had a very different relationship at the beginning of their careers.
“There was a period where we were bitter rivals and didn’t really like each other. It’s not in my personality to take anyone lightly, but the first time we played [in 2001] I had no idea who he was, and I lost, 6-3, 6-3,” Taylor recalls. “Leading up to Athens 2004, I sent him an email and I just said, ‘I know we've had our moments on court, but with your ability at the net and my ability at the baseline of hitting heavy, topspin lobs, I think we could be a really good team together.”
The result? “I sent that email and he ignored me. He didn't answer,” Taylor adds with a laugh. “I asked him two more times when we were in Europe and he kept blowing me off.”
Eventually, though, the pair came together when Draney, Wagner’s regular partner, didn’t qualify for Athens, while Taylor “did as much winning as I could to prove that I deserved to go,” and reached doubles world No. 1 in July of 2003. An unbeaten run from January of 2004 to November of 2007, including gold in Athens, followed for Taylor and Wagner, as did a consistent partnership for over a decade. Of Taylor’s 120 career doubles titles, 91 came with Wagner—including all 11 of his Slams and three gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
"I can't think of a guy who's played as long as he has and won as much as he has. It's an honor to play in a time when he was playing and be able to watch such a great athlete," Wagner said. "To have Nick's last one here in the United States is great, and just having seen everyone get behind him, knowing it's his last one, was great. I'm honored to be part of that with him."
Taylor’s competitive resume in tennis is only rivaled by his off-court involvement. A member of the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) wheelchair players’ council, he’s successfully lobbied for the inclusion of quad events at the French Open and Wimbledon in recent years, and the expansion of the discipline at majors to eight players. He is on the USTA’s national wheelchair tennis committee, where he currently chairs the tournament and rules subcommittee, and is a member of the Missouri Valley section’s diversity and inclusion and Hall of Fame committees.
A double alumnus of Wichita State University with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, Taylor has also been involved with the school’s varsity men’s tennis team for more than 15 years—first as an intern, later as a volunteer assistant coach, and now as its director of operations—is currently the tournament director at the $25,000 ITF World Tennis Tour event held in Wichita, which next year will host a men’s and women’s tournament in consecutive weeks, and has taught “almost everything” in the school’s undergraduate sports management department while currently teaching at the graduate level.
“I joke that it’s the internship that never ended,” Taylor says of his time on campus. “I needed an internship to graduate with my undergraduate degree, so shortly before I left for Athens, I asked if I could help out. I was already practicing at the courts and friendly with the players, and they said, ‘Absolutely, we can use all the help we can get.’
“I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish a lot of things, but there's no job that I feel like is beneath me. If the courts need to get cleaned, I'm out there with a leaf blower. If it's on court, coaching, organizing trips, arranging hotels, finding officials, I do it. I tell my students all the time that I hate the phrase, ‘It’s not in my job description.’ Whatever it takes and wherever I can help, I'm going to help.”
"With all of the obstacles Nick has overcome in his life, his tennis career is nothing short of remarkable," added Danny Bryant, the current head coach of the Shockers. "His accomplishments on and off the court have been truly inspirational. We are fortunate to have Nick continue to serve as an integral part of our program and as a member of the Wichita tennis community. As one chapter closes and another one begins, I am extremely proud of Nick and excited to see what his future holds."
Keeping with that philanthropic mindset, Taylor also co-founded Wichita Adaptive Sports, a nonprofit which provides athletic opportunities for disabled children and adults in sports including tennis, track and field and basketball.
How has he balanced all that with a championship-caliber career? Being busy comes second-nature.
“I’ve been privately criticized, at times, from other players for doing all that I do. And that’s not in a, ‘It's bad that you're doing it,’ way, but more like a, ‘Are you sure you're focusing enough on your career?’ way. And my answer is, ‘Yes, I know what I'm doing. I have plenty of time.’ I have enough time to train. None of those other priorities have ever gotten in the way of my going to a tournament because I need to be doing something else,” he said.
“I’ve always felt that it's incredibly important to give back, and a lot of players do that, but they do it when they're done [playing professionally]. When I say people were critical of it, they weren't rude. They weren't mean. They were like, ‘That's awesome that you want to do all that. Just do it when you're done. Don't try to do it right now.’ But I'm too much of a busybody that I don’t like when I’m not doing anything. I have the ability to give back, and some people aren’t in a position to, so why not do it?”
The lives Taylor has touched are as numerous as his trophies, and he says that his proudest accomplishment isn’t one that sits on a shelf. In recent years, he has been a mentor to Casey Ratzlaff, who picked up tennis at age 12 at one of Wichita Adaptive Sports’ camps and qualified for his first Paralympic Games this year at age 23. In addition, he’s mentored 18-year-old U.S. junior player Angelina ‘Gaila’ Fosbinder of Charlotte, N.C., who has the same disability, also plays tennis in a power wheelchair and recently made her junior Team USA debut at the World Team Cup.
"Nick has been a 'living legend' for a very long time now. Between being a former world No. 1, winning three gold medals and a silver with David Wagner at four Paralympic Games, and countless Grand Slam titles, there is no question that Nick's legacy will be etched in the history books for all time," Jason Harnett, head coach for U.S. wheelchair tennis, said. "What an honor it has been to watch him compete, grow as a leader in the tennis industry, and to know that his legacy will continue as he will continue to change the lives of so many future generations to come."
While his playing days are over, Taylor says he hopes to remain to be a resource for the next generation of players, to advocate for and advance the sport through his other administrative roles.
“If you look at my career, if you look at most everything I’ve done in my life, it didn’t go right, right off the bat. When I first started playing tennis and I could only hit a ball five feet, I wasn't strong enough. No one in their right mind would have told me to keep going at that point, but for some reason, I did. I just kept trying and kept digging. Why? I don't really know. But I did. People are so afraid of failure that they just don't try most things. People look at me and they're like, ‘There's no way I could do that,’ and I go, ‘Really? You don't think there's a way you could do that now, but there's a lot you could do if you just put in the time.’ That's different from, ‘There's no way I can do,’” he said.
“A lot of what I accomplished was between five and 20 years ago, and while wheelchair tennis was always a full-time job for me, I had to do other things to make money. My hope for the sport is that it continues on the path it’s on, getting to where as many players as possible can make a living by just playing tennis. Right now, the top players who are consistently playing Grand Slams can—and it’s the same in able-bodied tennis, but the difference is there are 128 opportunities in their tournaments, while it’s eight in wheelchair tennis.
“If that happens, that means wheelchair tennis has become mainstream, it’s on television all the time and everybody in the world knows who [men’s world No. 1] Shingo Kunieda is, instead of just people really in the wheelchair tennis world and some people outside that are still very heavily involved in tennis. It’s already to that point, to a degree, but it’s got to continue. If that happens, then the next goal, which is probably my bigger goal, is that it gets more people, and more little kids, playing. That it gives more kids with a disability people to look up to and show them—and not just the kids but, more importantly, their parents—that you can still have a very successful, very meaningful life if you're disabled. There are all these different things you can do, with wheelchair tennis being one of them.
“The friendships and the relationships I’ve built, by far, mean more to me than anything else, any trophy or medal. Very few people can say that they can go to almost any country in the world and have friends to call up and say, 'Hey, you want to go to dinner?' Name the country and I've got friends that live there, and a vast majority of those, I've also been to. That's probably the coolest part.”