College ties strong on 2021 U.S. World Team Cup team
Donning the red, white and blue was not all that Team USA's wheelchair tennis athletes had in common at the recently-completed BNP Paribas World Team Cup in Sardinia: nearly all of them have ties to U.S. colleges and universities, where they were able to thrive in an environment of competitive, collegiate wheelchair tennis that's blossomed over the past two decades.
Four players on this year's roster are University of Arizona graduates, with Bryan Barten, Jason Keatseangsilp, Dana Mathewson and David Wagner all earning bachelor's degrees as Wildcats. Barten coaches the wheelchair tennis team at Arizona—and has since its inception in 1998. Both Keatseangsilp and Mathewson were coached by him during their time in Tucson, making this year's World Team Cup a full-circle moment for him when they competed as teammates in Italy.
"Collegiate tennis, it's similar to how we are at World Team Cup. In the collegiate environment, you have three or four players who are out there playing against another university, and in World Team Cup, you're playing against one country every day. We have opportunities for junior athletes, scholarships for wheelchair tennis players and other athletes in different sports at the university, and any time we can raise awareness for that, and give an opportunity for younger athletes, we want to," Barten said.
"For example, I was Dana's coach during her undergraduate years, helped in her development, and it was a step on her tennis path. She was a full-time student, got an advanced degree in England, and now, she's back at the USTA National Campus in Orlando. That's just one athlete's path, but the University of Arizona played a big part in that and in keeping her engaged."
In addition to the former Wildcats, three other players—Chris Herman (University of Florida), Shelby Baron (University of Alabama) and Casey Ratzlaff (Wichita State, University of Alabama at Birmingham)—also have university ties in regards to their competitive tennis, while the legendary Grand Slam champion Nick Taylor has been an assistant coach at Wichita State for more than a decade. (In addition, Emmy Kaiser boasts a bachelor's degree from Thomas More College and a master's in sport and exercise psychology from Ball State University, which has assisted her in becoming a USPTA and PTR-certified tennis teaching professional.)
Both Herman and Baron won titles for their schools at the USTA's College Wheelchair Tennis Championships, while Keatseangsilp competed for Arizona at the most recent event this spring. Wichita native Ratzlaff first utilized his home campus in Kansas as a training base as his personal coach, Justin DeSanto, was a longtime assistant coach for the Wichita State men's tennis team before being named head coach at UAB this past June. Ratzlaff is now a volunteer assistant coach for the Blazers, too.
Baron also credits her time in Tuscaloosa with sparking a lifelong interest. After graduating with two degrees from Alabama and playing there for five years, the native Hawaiian has stayed involved in the collegiate ranks as a part of her tennis career: this spring, she helped coach her alma mater to another title at the USTA's national competition, and she's also the collegiate subcommittee chair within the USTA's national wheelchair tennis committee.
"I had a really dedicated coach at Alabama [Evan Enquist] who just really changed my perspective on the sport. I was no longer just a player," Baron said. "My passion for growing the sport, at the collegiate level and at the junior level, has grown so much. I just want to keep involved, volunteer my time and eventually end up at a university as a coach. I have so many different goals in life just because I played at Alabama."
In a year in which the Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Championships celebrated its 20th anniversary with the largest field in event history, the future is bright for tennis as a leading adaptive sport at the university level, both for the sport itself and its athletes.
"First and foremost, education is the key for all of our athletes, no matter what they do, whether it's in competitive wheelchair tennis or just what they go on to pursue in their lives. Education is the No. 1 priority for me as a coach at a university," Barten said.
"It can be a great 'What next?' for juniors. What do you do when you're done with juniors and you graduate from high school? Well, we can tell them that we have a vibrant collegiate program that's going on in this country. You can go to schools like Arizona, Alabama, Auburn, San Diego State—my good friend Greg Hasterok [another former U.S. World Team Cup player] at San Diego State is coaching with the team. Our program at Arizona has been around for over 20 years. Since we started, we've had six Paralympians come through our program. Those are some of our shining stars from the athletic side, but we have so many people who've graduated with advanced degrees from the University of Arizona, and I'm just so proud of all of those individuals.
"It can not only lead you to the pinnacle of our sport, but also an advanced degree from a major university. It's just great all-around."
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