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University of Alabama hosts first-ever dual match in wheelchair tennis
Already a pioneering force in wheelchair tennis, the University of Alabama added another chapter to the sport's history books over the weekend by hosting the first-ever wheelchair tennis dual match, welcoming Clemson University, the University of Michigan and UCLA to Tuscaloosa.
Wheelchair tennis has been steadily emerging at U.S. colleges and universities over the past two decades, providing students in wheelchairs with the opportunity to compete on organized teams or at tournaments as affiliates to existing adapted athletics programs. But interscholastic competition typically comes at one signature event annually: the USTA Collegiate Wheelchair National Championships, held in April.
This event represented the first “regular season” contest for all four schools, and is the latest sign that the sport is growing exponentially. At last year’s national event, for example, 27 athletes represented eight universities; both were all-time highs for the event, and Alabama extended its dominance by winning a fifth consecutive crown and sixth national title overall.
The university has long been championship-caliber thanks to its campus-wide investment in adapted athletics: its storied program dates back nearly 20 years, and it fields world-class wheelchair basketball and tennis teams as one of more than 20 such colleges or universities with organized adapted athletics departments.
Read more at usta.com: Alabama wins fifth straight title at College Wheelchair Tennis Championships
While any result was secondary to the meaning of the moment, the Crimson Tide again cemented its status as the standard-bearer over the weekend by winning all three tilts against the visting schools by 3-0 final scores. The home team blanked UCLA on Friday, and then doubled up against Clemson and Michigan on Saturday. Each tie consisted of two singles and one doubles match.
Story continues below photo gallery. Photo credit: Eric Traugott, Alabama Adapted Athletics.
The dual match also made history as the first wheelchair event to be hosted at the school's Parker-Haun Tennis Facility, which opened in October. Thanks to the efforts of head coach Evan Enquist and others, nearly $1 million was raised for the facility to give the Alabama wheelchair tennis team a permanent home with adequate, accessible facilities, and it is the first tennis facility of its kind at a college or university built specifically for adapted athletics.
"I'd always held back from hosting collegiate events and more events because we just didn't have all the pieces in place," Enquist said. "We haven't tapped into that dual match setting ... mostly just because of the size of the programs, and the distance between us all, we found it more convenient to meet at different locations.
"Dual matches were part of my collegiate experience as a player ... and these programs that have sprouted up in the last couple of years, like Clemson, like Michigan, like UCLA, are really much more college-minded. Previous programs were a little bit more individual-minded, [where there players would focus on] competing in more USTA matches and ITF tournaments. These are programs that want to compete collegiately, so I knew it was coming."
Read more at usta.com: University of Alabama unveils first-of-its-kind wheelchair tennis facility
The Parker-Haun Tennis Facility is also designated as a USTA community hub, a new initiative by the association to open collegiate facilities to public tennis programming with the goal of building a mutually-beneficial relationship between schools and their local communities. Schools are given a new source of revenue by opening their tennis facilities and are also afforded the opportunity to connect with new supporters and fans, while local tennis providers and players can play on state-of-the-art courts.
"Without everyone who made this facility move forward and happen, and without this facility, it's still me asking the varsity teams to use their facilities," he added. "They're incredibly generous in allowing us to do that; however, they have two full teams and a full spring schedule. Without our recreational sports department resurfacing these courts, all the donors, the Parker-Haun family, the USTA ... all these things have come together so that we can host and event and be a permanent stop for collegiate wheelchair tennis teams."
These efforts haven't gone unnoticed by the players, and the privilege of having home-court advantage for the first time wasn't lost on them.
"It's awesome," Alabama graduate student and tennis team member Avery Downing said of the event. "It's just a great feeling. We've put a lot of work into growing the sport, especially gowing collegiate wheelchair tennis, and it just feels good."
In early April, before it heads to nationals, the Crimson Tide will host another collegiate invitational featuring Auburn University and other Alabama-based schools. For Enquist, events like these are only the beginning.
"I think everyone is really, overall, excited. I think they see our facility as an incredible breakthrough and as a standard for what universities can offer for their adaptive athletes," he said. "We keep pushing the envelope. In my mind, we're trying to give our athletes the Division I college experience like the other athletes on our campus. The other programs see it as we're setting the bar and say, 'Okay, we have to catch them and pass them.' That's phenomenal for our sport."
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