Alabama and Auburn put on wheelchair tennis exhibition during NCAA Championships

Victoria Chiesa | May 20, 2023

At the historic, combined NCAA Championships that's brought players from Divisions I, II and III together to a single site for the first time, the fast-growing sport of intercollegiate wheelchair tennis was also on show.


Wheelchair tennis has been steadily emerging on the campuses of various U.S. colleges and universities since the turn of the millennium, providing students in wheelchairs with the opportunity to compete on organized teams, or at tournaments as affiliates to existing adapted athletics programs. In an effort to provide interscholastic competition for wheelchair tennis players, the USTA has held its Collegiate Wheelchair National Championships annually in April for two decades. On Saturday at the USTA National Campus, two of the schools that were among the 10 to compete in the event this year—the University of Alabama and Auburn University—played an exhibition match alongside the Division I women's team final between the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University. 


Under the leadership of head coach Evan Enquist, who's also a longtime member of the USTA's national wheelchair tennis committee, Alabama has been at the forefront of progress for the sport. Winners of the six straight national crowns from 2017-22, Alabama is the only school in the country that currently boasts a dedicated facility for wheelchair tennis, and it also hosted the first-ever dual match in wheelchair tennis last year.

Despite all that, Enquist called the opportunity to be a piece of this nearly three-week festival of tennis "surreal."


"If you would have told me in 2015 that collegiate wheelchair tennis would have 10 programs ... alongside our varsity tennis programs, I would not have believed you," he said prior to arriving in Orlando.


"It is an incredible opportunity to show the world of college tennis who we are and what we can do on the same tennis court. Many collegiate coaches and athletes have yet to expeince wheelchair tennis and likely not wheelchair tennis played at this level. 


"It gives us the opportunity to gain awareness and provide our athletes with an amazing experience and reason to train to be the best in the court. I hope future players will be able to experience the same opportunity for generations to come."

While Alabama is the gold standard, Auburn represents the sport's emerging future. According to the team's coach Nathan Waters, also the assistant director in Auburn's accessibility office and an adjunct professor of kinesiology, the university recommitted to having wheelchair tennis as an adaptive sport offering two years ago, after the school's first player, Jacob Rehm, competed there in 2009 and 2010. The 2021 team was made up of two student-athletes, which doubled to four in 2022 and increased to five this year. 


In speaking to about the exhibition, Waters echoed Enquist's sentiments, and also lauded tennis' place as a sport that promotes its student-athletes' overall health and wellness beyond the four years they traditionally spend on campus—for both able-bodied players and wheelchair users. 


"This an opportunity to show that these student-athletes also play at an elite level," he said. "I’m excited that our players are able to get the recognition they deserve. ... Our players often practice with players not in chairs. This is a sport that our student-athletes can continue beyond college and play for a lifetime."


And the possibilities are not just limited to one night in Orlando. Though wheelchair tennis is not currently sanctioned by the NCAA, a new initiative announced jointly by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and NCAA Office of Inclusion earlier this spring hopes to change that for the sports of basketball, tennis, and track and field. The ITA, the governing body and coaching association of collegiate tennis, hopes to soon implement a wheelchair coaches' category, and aspires to host a wheelchair event at the 2023 ITA National Fall Championships.


"I think we are entering a new area of potential opportunities in adapted sports," Enquist continued. "The growth of wheelchair tennis and interest around the country from both adapted sports departments and varsity athletic programs is only growing. With our pending integration into the ITA, and collaboration discissions with the USOPC and NCAA, the landscape could change dramatically in a positive direction.


"Collegiate wheelchair tennis as a sport is nearing its 25th anniversary, and I have sneaking suspision that the next 25 years of the sport will be like none other."

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