Gabby Hesse changing the game in wheelchair tennis
The Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Md. has grown into a premiere tennis-playing destination since its founding in 1999. It offers comprehensive programming for juniors and adults of all levels on a sprawling, 32-court campus that features a fitness complex, yoga studio and pro shop. It's produced tour-level professionals including Frances Tiafoe, Denis Kudla and Robin Montgomery, and countless others who've gone on to play collegiately at the Division I, II and III levels. As a USTA Foundation National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter, it supports the athletic and education endeavors of local, under-resourced youth, and through partnerships with the military nonprofit “ThanksUSA,” and the Special Olympics, it brings the sport to new populations.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Gabriella 'Gabby' Hesse, JTCC is changing the game again. Hesse, 23, has been the head of wheelchair and adaptive tennis at JTCC for much of the last year, where she runs its free, weekly wheelchair tennis clinic for all ages, organizes all adaptive programming and events, and assists in fundraising.
Also the center's marketing manager, Hesse has already had an impact befitting a much more seasoned professional. Last October, for example, she spearheaded a successful initiative to get all 25 of JTCC's full-time coaches certified in wheelchair tennis, and staged the inaugural JTCC Wheelchair Championships, where 15 players from around the USTA's Mid-Atlantic section, plus two from North Carolina and California, competed. JTCC now boasts the most certified wheelchair tennis coaches at one facility nationwide, and Hesse also estimates that more than 30 unique participants have taken part in the weekly clinic since it restarted in earnest after the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's all a testament to Hesse's infectious enthusiasm, both for the sport and for JTCC itself.
"JTCC is a pretty phenomenal place, and I walk in every day with a smile on my face," Hesse says. "I wake up every morning and I can't believe I have the opportunity to do what I'm doing. I just feel really lucky in that regard.... The people I've met have just added so much value to my life."
Listening to Hesse, who is able-bodied, speak about wheelchair tennis—"It's such a big part of my life now that it's hard to even think back to a time when it wasn't," she says—you'd never guess that her history with the sport only dates back six years. In the fall of 2016, she matriculated at Florida Southern from Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado, and first met Paul Walker, a USTA national coach for wheelchair tennis who's also assisted with the FSC Mocs since 2015.
"As a wheelchair user, I've never wanted to be separate, I didn't want to just be 'over there' in the wheelchair tennis world," Walker says. "As a coach, I've spent a lot more time in the able-bodied tennis side; and players like Gabby, I like to think that they just see me as a coach. Like, 'That dude happens to sit in a wheelchair when he shows up every day, but other than that, I really don't see any difference.'
"I think she's taken that approach, which maybe opened her eyes a little bit, and then she thought, 'Wow, this space in tennis could use some energy. I've got energy to give.'"
But Hesse credits Walker with more than just making a simple introduction to the sport. He soon became a mentor of sorts and helped her adjust to life as a collegiate athlete while she dealt with injuries and reduced playing time. In the summer of 2019, she interned at the USTA National Campus, where she met more of the USTA’s wheelchair tennis staff including head coach Jason Harnett and manager Jason Allen. The relationships she built with them all, coupled with her arrival at JTCC in 2020 as an inaugural fellow in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA)'s Tennis for America program, helped her find her calling after graduation.
"Coming from high school, where I was the top player on my team, I had to figure out what my role was going to be on this team if I'm not going to actually be contributing score-wise. Taking that mindset of trying to be the best player 'for' the team is probably the most valuable thing I took from my experience, and Coach Walker had a huge impact in helping develop that," Hesse said.
"There were a number of times that I was frustrated because I was putting in the work and working hard, but I was not individually at the level I wanted. There are so many different ways to achieve your goals, so many ways to support the athletes, and that's something I see now with working with wheelchair tennis. What I've tried really hard to cultivate is not only a place where players come once a week to just play tennis. I've really tried to foster a community.
"We've recently started having all [the wheelchair players] warm up together with the same drill, no matter their level of experience. It's turned into amazing mentorship opportunities for the more advanced players, who take the beginners through this drill, giving them tips and advice. These beginners, some of whom may have never played adaptive sports and are very new to a sports wheelchair are being 'coached' by a player that looks like them and has the experience, and I think that those little things have really contributed to the success of our program. That gets those players coming back time and time again, it's real, and it's part of the community we've built.
"One thing I don't tell a lot of people, though, is that I was terrified to get involved with and to coach wheelchair tennis because I never taught it before, I didn't want to say the wrong thing, I didn't want to do the wrong thing. I was very comfortable around Coach Walker and being around someone in a chair, but in anticipation, I was so nervous about it. As soon as I got out on the court, it was like calm washed over me and I felt very comfortable. I was able to really engage with the athletes, and it's what kicked off this passion of mine and this life-long love.
“JTCC has grown into one of the largest wheelchair tennis programs in the country, and so we're really in a position to look at what the best way is to grow this sustainably, to reach as many athletes as we can. Whatever we do, we want to do it as best we can and really work to provide a pathway for all players to achieve their goals for the sport, and that’s part of what I really love about working here.”
As for Walker? He loves watching any of his former players excel, wherever their career takes them.
“Watching Gabby at JTCC, it’s kind of like a Reese's—peanut butter and chocolate are good separately, and then you put them together, and they’re great. I think they recognized her, somebody that has the energy and the passion and the drive and determination, and she recognized what a great place JTCC is,” Walker said.
“It’s a win-win situation. JTCC is getting this adaptive growth in their programing and then they've got a person that's doing it, who’s happy to lead it, and it just couldn't be a better fit.”