Love Serving Autism demo at Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier is 'definition of inclusion'

Victoria Chiesa | April 17, 2023

World-class tennis wasn't all that was on display in Delray Beach, Fla. over the weekend during the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier between the U.S. and Austria. Fifteen Love Serving Autism players, both children and adults, as well as 10 student volunteers and seven coaches participated in an adaptive tennis demonstration, held between matches on the tie's second day on Saturday.


The group also met with USTA President and Chairman of the Board Brian Hainline, and one young player was selected to perform the ceremonial coin toss for the fourth and final match featuring the doubles team of Coco Gauff and Caty McNally.

The integration of adaptive tennis as U.S. team events is not new; last year, for example, U.S. Paralympians showcased wheelchair tennis at home Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup ties in Reno, Nev. and Asheville, N.C. Love Serving Autism's founder, Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix, says that spotlighting adaptive tennis on the sport's biggest stages is crucial towards supporting a more inclusive environment in the sport, and engaging a more diverse player base at all levels. The organization previously had on-court demostrations at the 2019 and 2022 US Opens, as well as prior editions of both the Delray Beach Open and Miami Open.


"Inviting children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to participate in a professional tennis tournament impacts the lives of families, volunteers, coaches and tournament staff," Pugliese-LaCroix said.

"By embracing and celebrating neurodiversity, such as the on-court Love Serving Autism exhibition at the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup, the tennis industry is demonstrating the definition of inclusion. One of my bigger organizational goals is for ATP & WTA tournament organizers and staff worldwide to recognize the importance of these opportunities as a catalyst for awareness and acceptance of individuals with differing abilities."


Florida native Pugliese-LaCroix, a former Division I tennis player and a speech-language pathologist, founded the non-profit in 2016 to combine her love for tennis and her career background, as well as to give back to her local community. In the six years since its founding, Love Serving Autism has grown to 28 locations in Florida and nine in other states, servicing nearly 650 youths and adults with autism spectrum disorders and other development disabilities. In 2018, Pugliese-LaCroix received the USTA Florida Outstanding Diversity Achievement Award and was selected as the Adaptive Tennis Champion of the Year by Racquet Sports Industry Magazine, while the organization became the adaptive tennis partner for the USTA Florida section in 2020. 


But the biggest impact Love Serving Autism has made is in the lives of its athletes. When Delray coin-tosser Elijah first started in the program in 2019, Pugliese-LaCroix said, he was nonverbal and communicated only by pointing and gestures. But on-court with Gauff and the other players, the now-verbal youngster enjoyed entertaining them, and fist-bumped them to wish them good luck for their match. 


"His smile said it all," Pugliese-LaCroix said. 

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