Jason Harnett | May 1, 2017
May is National Mobility Awareness Month. To kick off the month, Jason Harnett, the USTA’s National Manager for Wheelchair Tennis and the head coach of the U.S. wheelchair teams, takes a look back at the history of wheelchair tennis in the U.S. and the exciting path forward..
Wheelchair tennis came into existence in 1976, when a young man by the name of Brad Parks became paralyzed after a freestyle skiing accident.
Brad and a fellow rehab patient, Jeff Minnebraker, decided to give tennis in a wheelchair a try across the street from the hospital at some local tennis courts. While the two of them labored to push the heavy and cumbersome hospital chairs around the court, a couple of able-bodied players on the next court yelled over, “Why do you guys even bother?”
That was all the motivation Brad and Jeff needed to practice harder. Together, they worked to develop a sport that would survive the early days of struggle and grow to be recognized, 40 years later, as the most professionalized of all disabled sports.
The wonderful, integrative quality between the disabled and able-bodied sides of tennis became apparent when the same two gentlemen invited Brad and Jeff to play some doubles not long after their first encounter. They witnessed their determination to improve – and improve they did.
As the vision of expansion to the rest of the disabled world became apparent to Brad, he and others took the marketing and promotion show on the road. Reminiscent of the road shows of the early days of the able-bodied professional tour, Brad knew he had to reach the masses in any way he could. He would take the exhibitions to beach parking lots, professional ice-hockey events – playing on the ice! – and other professional sporting events. He also showcased wheelchair tennis at other disabled sporting events. It was at these other events that wheelchair basketball players and other disabled athletes, some from the U.S. and others from other countries, began to spread the word about this new and easily integrated sport.
Brad felt it was time to host a tournament.
The idea of bringing not only American players, but also of adding an international feel to these events was exciting to Brad. He knew though, to be competitive, the one rule that must be implemented, was the “two-bounce” rule. The allowance of a second bounce if needed – first bounce must be in, the second can land anywhere – was going to provide that added bit of time sometimes needed by the athletes in order to keep the point alive. It would be the only rule separating wheelchair tennis from “regular” tennis as we know it.
After the exponential growth of the tournament scene from the early days, it was apparent that wheelchair tennis, with its international flavor intact, was in need of a major “team” competition. That was served by the birth of World Team Cup, which forever changed wheelchair tennis.
The wheelchair equivalent of Davis Cup and Fed Cup is today played by more than 40 teams, representing more than 20 countries, on an annual basis, making it one of the largest and most prestigious disabled sporting events in the world, second only to the Paralympic Games.
From actually being the first person to strike a ball out of a wheelchair, Brad Parks has witnessed all of this and more:
- The development of World Team Cup (Davis Cup/Fed Cup equivalent).
- The international growth in participation has been exponential in nature.
- The inclusion of wheelchair tennis into all four Grand Slam events.
- The inclusion of wheelchair tennis into the Parapan Am Games.
- The inclusion of wheelchair tennis into the Paralympic Games. (Wheelchair tennis was included in 1988 as a medal sport.)
- The international management of the sport taken over by the ITF (professional tour began in 1992).
- ITF recognition of an annual men’s and women’s world champion at the Champions Dinner at Roland Garros.
- The addition of the NEC Singles Masters and current UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters events.
- His National Foundation for Wheelchair Tennis (NFWT) being absorbed by the USTA in 1998. The USTA became the first national governing body to absorb wheelchair tennis and also the first to hire a full-time national manager, paving the way for other national governing bodies around the world.
- The inclusion of wheelchair tennis athletes at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Brad was the first to be inducted.
What is next on that remarkable list? In my opinion, from the perspective of a national coach since 1998, now national manager and head Paralympic coach, the list got a little longer on Jan. 1, 2017. With the addition of the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., wheelchair tennis has been given an opportunity to join the Player Development family.
The theme of diversity and inclusion has been driven home each and every day. USTA Player Development General Manager Martin Blackman, with a clear vision for Player Development’s direction, has seen the importance of this and has embraced the Paralympic side of the sport. To hear him say, “You are part of the family now and this is your home,” not only to myself but to our players as they come here to train or visit, is surreal. These are words that we, on this side of the sport, were afraid we may never hear.
The excitement for us is indescribable. The other day, I caught myself in a moment feeling a bit overwhelmed with the workload. Having just moved here in October from Southern California, leaving everything comfortable that I knew, with a wife, three kids under 4 years old, three Boston Terriers, two cats and a tortoise, it was a real deep-breath, heavy-sigh moment. Martin happened to be passing by and asked if I was doing OK. He empathized with me and, in his way, as he began to head back to his desk, he looked at me and simply said, and you can all hear his voice in this, “High Performance baby…High Performance!” and we both laughed.
It was at this moment that I knew that we are here at the right time, with the right leadership.