Fun had by all at celebratory 2023 USTA Adaptive Tennis National Championships
Tennis is a sport that can be played—and enjoyed—by everyone, and there was no better testament to that fact than the camaraderie and competition on display at the Adaptive Tennis National Championships, played at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., on Nov. 3-5.
A total of 25 unified doubles teams—pairs comprised of an adaptive athlete and their non-disabled partner, called a unified partner—from a dozen USTA sections were divided into five round-robin groups and competed for trophies at the event.
USTA Southern’s Lawton Kugler and his unified doubles partner, Marcy Hirshberg, were one such team, and the pair left Florida with a national title in their division for the second year in a row. Kugler, of Peachtree City, Ga., has honed his game with the organization Special Pops Tennis—which teaches tennis to kids and adults with intellectual disabilities—while Hirshberg is a fixture in the sport around Atlanta. She first started playing at age 11, and learned of adaptive tennis in her early 20s, after an acquaintance took her to a high school where she was teaching tennis to special education students.
“Two weeks later, I had my own class, because I was so impressed with it and had such a great time,” she said.
Hirshberg is now the chair of the USTA’s national adaptive tennis committee, which works tirelessly to raise awareness for and champion adaptive tennis around the country by writing coaching curricula, aggregating resources, and registering programs. At last year’s national championship—the first since 2019, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—the USTA debuted its Level 1 adaptive tennis curriculum for coaches of first-time players, and to kick off the weekend’s events in Orlando, committee member Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix, founder of the adaptive tennis nonprofit organization Love Serving Autism, and the USTA’s director of wheelchair tennis, Jason Harnett, held a clinic that taught the curriculum to more coaches.
“It’s our charge, and our mission, to make tennis accessible to everyone, regardless of any disability they might have,” Hirshberg said. “I enjoy this weekend more than anything in the world. It kind of takes all the activities that we do with the national adaptive committee and celebrates [them], and gives an opportunity for people from all over the country to come together.”
Players like Kugler are a testament the work that volunteers like Hirshberg do. His mother, Kim Kugler, says that playing tennis has helped her son learn sportsmanship and that keeping score has improved his math skills.
“With this program … and the patience of all these volunteers, he had grown his game and was able to play high school tennis for four years,” Kim Kugler said. “It’s really changed him. … He’s made great friends, and he looks forward to these tournaments.”
She’s now been inspired to pay it forward as an adaptive tennis volunteer herself.
“It’s really a blessing, for volunteers as much as it is athletes,” she added. “My heart tells me to grow this, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), up to 1 in 4 people in the U.S., or 27% of all residents, have some form of a disability. Though there are only 300 adaptive tennis programs registered with the USTA around the country, Hirshberg says that number, and overall impact, is only poised to grow exponentially as more people are given the opportunity and tools to play.
And Lawton Kugler, too, has a message to share with those who might be considering picking up a racquet and joining him on the courts.
“It’s a good sport,” he said. “It’s fun … making new friends, meeting new people. It means a lot to me. I enjoy it a lot.”
To learn more about adaptive tennis and to get involved in a program near you, click here.