Americans reflect on competing at inaugural US Open junior wheelchair event

Victoria Chiesa | September 16, 2022

Four American teenagers helped make tennis history last week at the 2022 US Open: Charlie Cooper, Sabina Czauz, Lily Lautenschlager and Maylee Phelps were part of the 16-player field at the first-ever junior wheelchair Grand Slam tournament of any kind.


The debut of the US Open Junior Wheelchair Championships was the second prong to the historic expansion of this year's edition of the wheelchair tournament at America's Grand Slam, which was first played in 2005: The men's and women's draws also doubled from their traditional eight players to 16 for 2022—a tournament-best amongst the four Grand Slams. Add in eight quad players—their field doubled from four in 2021—as well as eight boys and eight girls, and the 2022 US Open Wheelchair Championships presented by Deloitte featured 56 athletes in total.  


Taking place concurrently to the professional event during the Open's third week, the boys' and girls' wheelchair singles and doubles draws featured representatives from eight countries, all competing in both disciplines. Phelps, 15—and the second-ranked player in the girls' international rankings—was the top seed in girls' singles and also slotted at No. 1 with her Brazilian partner Jade Moreira Lanai in doubles. Though Moreira Lanai got the better of Phelps in a three-set semifinal on her way to winning the title, the duo joined forces to capture the inaugural wheelchair girls' doubles title over Lautenschlager and her British partner, Ruby Bishop.


Shining on-court in a 6-0, 6-0 Round 1 win against Germany's Ela Porges, Phelps was most happy with how she managed to rise to the occasion of the unknown that was around her: She played second on Court 15 in the middle of a busy Day 11 at the Open, with able-bodied junior and professional wheelchair matches going on all around the grounds.

"I think it's great that [wheelchair] juniors were accepted at the US Open for the very first time," she said. 


"It's definitely not exactly what I imagined: I didn't imagine it to be almost similar to Disneyland because it's so big, lots of people, but it's really fun." 


Competing at the US Open at the same time as the sport's biggest stars was, in fact, the second 'first' that 14-year-old Cooper experienced in his budding tennis career in as many months. In early August, he and three peers—Mathias Krodel, Tomas Majetic and Max Wong—competed in an exhibition event at the famed USTA Boys’ 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. It was the first time wheelchair tennis was played at the tournament in its nearly eight decades.

The American quartet's presence at the tournament was a microcosm of the work being done by the USTA across the country to identify young talent and grow wheelchair tennis from the ground up. The four promising talents hail from four different states: Phelps is from Portland, Ore., while Czauz trains in Boulder, Colo. and Lautenschlager comes from Lincoln, Neb. (She's recently matriculated at the University of Arizona, where she'll play wheelchair tennis and wheelchair basketball for the Wildcats.) Cooper, the top-ranked American boy in the world rankings at No. 13, is from La Quinta, Calif. 


While Phelps qualified by ranking and Cooper and Lautenschlager knew wild cards were at play earlier on in the entry process, Czauz ended up in New York on the back of a whirlwind 48 hours. Just days prior to the start of the tournament, the 15-year-old got the call that she'd be a last-minute alternate in the field. 


"I got the call Monday. They're like, 'Hey, can you be here tomorrow in New York?', and I'm like, 'Yeah, we can,'" Czauz said. "It's awesome. It's super exciting. It's crazy. Everything you can possibly imagine, it is." 


Read more at usopen.orgU.S. wheelchair tennis players growing in confidence at 2022 US Open and beyond


Czauz was already a history-maker at home just two years into her competitive tennis journey: In Colorado, she's the first girl to play on an able-bodied high school tennis team. But thanks to her stay in New York, she's thinking bigger. 


"This makes me think that, in such a short time, you can reach high places if you keep practicing," she added.


Seeing the sport's next generation compete at Flushing Meadows was a development that both current and former pros were happy to witness. Ahead of the US Open, Billie Jean King—whom Cooper had the opportunity to meet at Flushing Meadows—called the expanded field and addition of a junior event "inspirational enhancements to one of the greatest events in all of sports."

Cooper and Billie Jean King at the US Open. (Photo by Shea Kastriner/USTA)

"I was very happy that to see that the juniors were going to get a presence at the Open because there's some good tennis there as well," Casey Ratzlaff, the highest-ranking American man in the men's open division on the wheelchair tour, added.


"You see what the evolution of professionalized wheelchair tennis can look like. ... It adds some depth to it. It adds some substance to our sport rather than just saying, 'The best of the best,' and that's it.


"I remember my first year here [Ratzlaff competed in his first US Open in 2020] was incredible. Forget tennis, it was just really cool to be here and be a part of this and say that you competed at the US Open. You're a US Open player. I just hope they enjoyed it. Every single one of them, that they just enjoyed being here and are proud of themselves for getting themselves here."

The opportunity to see their heroes up close wasn't lost on the kids, either.  


"It feels like we're all playing just the one sport," Cooper said. "We just got integrated, but it feels like it's been going on for a long time and everything's just pretty normal. Juniors integrated with all the other juniors; it's a good experience. It's also fun to see all the pro players, like Frances Tiafoe and Coco Gauff, just walking around where we are. It's cool."


"For me to be able to have [this experience] at this age and not wait for women's, that's been really cool because it means that I definitely want to try and come back in women's," Lautenschlager added. "It's just made me more motivated to push harder and come back here later."

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