First USTA wheelchair tennis event of 2021 a huge success
As one of the last local tennis tournaments held prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. last spring, the Southwest Florida Wheelchair Open Championships is now noteworthy for a second straight year in 2021.
Earlier this month, the Ft. Myers-based event became the first held under the USTA's new national wheelchair tournament structure, which took effect in January.
In attempt to streamline all sanctioned wheelchair play around the country, the USTA now categorizes its events from Level 5 sectional tournaments to Level 1 national championships. In addition to creating a unified national system for competition, other goals of the restructure include creating more tournament opportunities for wheelchair tennis players around the country, providing a variety of play opportunities in various formats, and encouraging cross-section and district play for player convenience.
All of these were on display over the weekend of Feb. 12-14 in Ft. Myers.
In all, 24 players from eight states — Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, and Wisconsin — came to Ft. Myers to compete in A, B, C and Quad singles and doubles at the designated Level 4 event, which was open to players from all 17 USTA sections.
Tournament director Lyn Bruner assessed that the flexibility that the new structure provides was among the reasons for the tournament's success.
"The new structure gave us a hybrid of formats. We did a round-robin in the co-ed 'A' singles, we did a draw and first match consolation in the 'B' singles... we tried to be flexible based on the number of entries in each division," Bruner said.
"Having co-ed divisions made it nice. We've always had some women who participated, but most of the time, there weren't enough women to actually have a separate division, so they played with the men anyway. Instead of having them play in a men's division, it's now a co-ed division. That may seem like a small distinction, but having it gender-neutral is a positive for all the players.
"We also had more players from different locations. We've had players from different states before... but the reach has gotten even further nationwide where players are traveling specifically for the tournament. In the past, players would come to Florida seasonally, or to visit family, and play, but this time, most of the players came specifically to play the tournament."
Since its debut in 2016, the tournament has been supported by the local Lee County Community Tennis Association, which provides weekly wheelchair tennis programming under the direction of Marc McLean. Bruner says the tournament grows by word of mouth each year. In addition to the LCCTA, this year's event was assisted by 10 volunteers from the Student Occupational Therapy Association at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University.
"About seven years ago, our players were talking about how they wished that there was a tournament they could play in on this side of the state. There was one on the east coast of south Florida, and they asked me if I would consider doing that," Bruner, who is also LCCTA's executive director, added.
"Our organization offers a lot of tournaments... so I went to the east coast to see how the tournament was run and to understand some of the nuances of running a wheelchair event."
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An adult tournament by designation, Bruner said that any interested player was afforded an opportunity to compete, which led to the inclusion of 14-year-old Maylee Phelps from Oregon in the field alongside players north of age 60. Phelps, born with spina bifida, is ranked No. 14 in the ITF world junior rankings and an aspiring member of the U.S. national wheelchair tennis team. Playing alongside adults, she reached the final of the singles 'C' bracket.
"She played one of our local players and he said, 'I could be her grandfather!'" Bruner said with a laugh. "The juniors can always play in adult tournaments... we're certainly not going to turn away players who want to play and want that experience.
"Each year, we try to make improvements based on previous years and input from the players... The feedback from the players has been very positive. Nobody complained that they didn't play enough tennis. That's why they come. They want to play. There's a social aspect to it, too. They talk about commonalities. The camaraderie is just amazing.
"I met a lot of new players this time that I'd never met before, and I hope to see them again."
For more information on the new USTA wheelchair tennis tournament structure and playing opportunities, click here.