The women of U.S. wheelchair tennis

Victoria Chiesa | March 29, 2021

Nancy Olson competing at the 1992 Paralympics. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

While International Tennis Hall of Famer Brad Parks is credited as the founder of the sport of wheelchair tennis, the unsung heroines of the sport since it began five decades ago have been its women. 


In fact, as Wendy Parks, Brad's wife, recently told "Brad was the the leader and he was the head figure, but underneath him, there was a group of women."


A physical therapist in her native Australia, Wendy Parks was first introduced to Brad, who'd later become her husband, when he came Down Under on the invitation of the legendary John Newcombe, to bring wheelchair tennis to the country. She volunteered to work at a wheelchair tennis clinic — "I was just astounded at the mobility on the court," she recalls — held at the rehabilitation center in Sydney where she worked with spinal cord injuries, and from then on, turned the sport into her life's work.


"This was in the very early days of wheelchair sports, period. Wheelchair basketball was the main sport that people were playing. So, not only was I introduced to this whole new sport where there are these young guys out there with not only great tennis skills, but the component of the wheelchair mobility on the tennis court was also added to that. To me, that was just incredible," she said.


"As wheelchair tennis really started to take off, they needed a lot of help. As Brad's wife, I just jumped right in there."

After settling in the United States, Wendy Parks played an integral role as Brad's right hand in support of the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis (NFWT), founded in 1980 as the precursor to the modern ITF UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, and the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation (IWTF), which governed the sport prior to it being integrated into the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in 1998.


"Brad understood that there had to be the competitive wheelchair tennis circuit, which he obviously wanted to develop, but there wasn't going to be any competitive wheelchair tennis circuit if there were no players being taught the game. With that came getting children from a very young age involved in wheelchair sports, because back then there wasn't a lot available for young disabled people. The grassroots and the competitive play were just as important as each other," she said. 


"I came in and just really did a whole mish-mash of of things, from writing grants, trying to get funding for the different programs that we wanted to do, coordinating clinics, reaching out to people across the country. We would sit down and decide, 'Okay, where do we want to try and get wheelchair tennis established this year?' And then we would look like a different areas where we knew that there was strong USTA tennis programs or there were teaching pros in programs or private clubs who had expressed an interest for wheelchair tennis programs. My job was to coordinate those clinics and to get people there to do the clinics. We then started running the tournaments and I coordinated the tournaments.


"We had another woman who was a recreational therapist and she started working with all the junior programs. When we started junior wheelchair sports camps, she coordinated all of those. Another did PR and another did a lot of the fundraising and put together all of the tournament programs. We had another who who ran the Wheelchair Tennis Players' Association, and she did all of the membership and the mailings and all of that.


"People would laugh when they'd come to the office and it was all women running wheelchair tennis. Looking back on it, it was pretty amazing times, really, when you consider how far it's come and what we were able to do with the little amount of resources that we had."

One of the leading U.S. women in the early years of the circuit was Nancy Olson, a two-time Paralympian in 1992 and 1996. The top-ranked U.S. woman for much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Olson reached a career-high ranking of world No. 3 in singles, ending five straight seasons inside the world's Top 10 from 1993-97, and also ranked world No. 1 in doubles in 1995.


"When I was playing, I think the players... we were almost like a big family. We were competitive, that was for sure, but everyone wasn't pulled in their own directions taking care of business," Olson recalled. "In my heyday, I was playing 17, 18 tournaments a year, and that was all over the country and the world. I played in Japan, I played in Australia, New Zealand and all over Europe. It was a lot of time away from home and dedication.


"I remember some of the bonding with the other players was when we had to, for example, go do our laundry and find the laundromat in a foreign country. These players now don't have to deal with that kind of stuff. You know, now you drop your laundry off and the tournament takes care of it for you. It was really the beginning stages of the sport. It was kind of beautiful in a way, a different setting."


Olson, who lost both legs in an automobile accident in 1983, also won two silver medals in doubles for the United States in her Paralympic appearances, partnering Lynn Seidemann in 1992 and Hope Lewellen in 1996. An alumna of Slippery Rock University, she was inducted into the university's athletic hall of fame for her wheelchair tennis career.


"I remember crying during opening ceremonies and walking around the stadium, from having 70,000 people waving at you and everything, and then spotting your parents in the stands, it's emotional," Olson said. "Sitting at the podium getting our silver medals, I remember saying to my partner that you can tell your children that the U.S. flag was raised for something that you accomplished. It was a great honor."

In the years since Parks and Olson were directly involved in the sport, wheelchair tennis has experienced exponential growth: it has been played at all four Grand Slam tournaments since 2007, and prior to the hiatus brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ITF's tour boasted 160 tournaments across 40 different countries. And if you ask these two early stalwarts of the sport, they say that the upward trajectory can only continue.


"The idea of wheelchair tennis being in the Grand Slams was never a concept that we ever thought was possible. To see that it's now considered and accepted as part of the the able-bodied Grand Slam world is absolutely incredible," Parks said. "At the start, there was a lot of negativity towards wheelchair tennis. There was a lot of support from a lot of professional people in the sport, but there was a lot of negativity, too. 


"It was considered, sort of, as a charity event. It was almost like, 'Isn't it nice that disabled people are playing tennis, but it's not really tennis,' for some people. There was that, just there. We never thought that would ever get to the level that it has reached today and it's incredibly exciting that it has, and to see it being accepted, is really just amazing."


"We were waiting for it to be accepted," Olson said. "It was just a matter of society catching up to us and saying, 'Yeah, these are real athletes and let's start supporting them.' I think the support they're getting now is so much better so they could take it to the next level."


"It is astounding to see as to how far it has come in a relatively short time," Parks continued. "It's astounding to see how good the skills of the players are, how they continue to improve, how their mobility continues to improve. Wheelchair tennis is still evolving. I don't know that I'm in a position to say where it can go because I would never have thought it would have come this far. The sky's the limit, really."

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