USTA National Campus hosts its first blind and visually-impaired tennis tournament
As the home for American tennis, the USTA National Campus is often the site of milestone moments for the sport, and last month, blind and visually-impaired tennis came to Orlando for the first time—thanks in no small part to the efforts of Blind and Visually Impaired Tennis of Highland Park, a grassroots tennis association based in Pittsburgh, Pa.
The organization has been operating in the Steel City since 2019, was founded by Dana Costa and operates out of the Highland Park Tennis Club. Costa’s now-9-year-old daughter, Domiana, was born with a visual impairment—and four years ago, Costa set about finding a way for her to compete in the sport that she herself played in for much of her life. In researching how sports have been historically adapted for blind and visually-impaired people, Costa discovered that blind and visually-impaired tennis has existed globally since the 1980s. Inspired to start a U.S.-based program, Costa later connected with Simon McFarland, a tennis coach in Northern Ireland who was, at the time, the acting president of the International Blind Tennis Association, who provided her with the necessary materials and curriculum to teach the sport.
While Costa started the program with the intention of giving Domiana an athletic outlet, so her daughter too could experience the joy that tennis had given her, it has since grown into something much bigger. Calling herself “a squeaky wheel” who “chirped in as many ears as [she] could” about the sport, she eventually connected with Dr. Jason Allen, the USTA’s national manager for USTA-U and coaching education, and Andrea Snead, a director for diversity and inclusion on the national staff, through the team at the USTA’s Middle States section. But Costa didn’t stop there: Last year, she also founded the United States Blind Tennis Association (USBTA) in an effort to help the U.S. catch up with the more than 30 countries that host blind and visually-impaired tennis tournaments. The seeds are already being planted around the country: In addition to the Pittsburgh club, there are blind tennis clubs in other cities like Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Nashville.
For its work in its community and beyond, Blind and Visually Impaired Tennis of Highland Park was awarded the USTA’s National Adaptive Tennis Community Service Award at the 2023 USTA Annual Meeting and Conference last month in Phoenix, Ariz.
“Watching my players from Pittsburgh compete in and play tennis … to see that they've overcome their fears to get out on the court again, is inspirational,” Costa said. “To see the smiles on their faces, it’s one of the most rewarding things that anybody can ever see. To watch the obstacles that they've already overcome, to see them put that behind them and just play and have fun, it makes me speechless. This program, it really does mean the world to me—to see that we are able to remove those barriers and remove those limitations that not only individuals put on themselves, but society puts on individuals that have a disability.”
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Blind tennis is categorized into four levels: B1 through B4 and B5. Players in a B1 sight classification have no sight, and are allowed up to three bounces before hitting the ball. The game is played either on a badminton court, or within the service courts of a regulation-size tennis court. A specially-adapted sponge ball, that has a noise-making device like bells inside of it, is used, as are smaller-sized tennis racquets. All of this was on display at the Campus on Feb. 24 and 25; in addition to on-court demonstrations, the Campus conference held educational sessions that shared best practices for blind and visually-impaired tennis programming, research on new balls, and the state of the sport globally.
For BVI players Chuck Gottus and Maggie Ostrowski, lifelong Pittsburgh residents who have retinitis pigmentosa and were in attendance in Orlando, the opportunity that Costa’s organization has provided them has been invaluable. Before his diagnosis, Gottus played tennis often with his father in his youth.
“I gave up on sports for quite some time when my vision started to get worse,” he said. “But the second I put that racquet in my hand, the first time Dana bounced one of those balls to me, it all came back and I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I need,’ … to embrace my blindness, to embrace what's going on for me, to embrace my love for sports and competitive play. I needed that back in my life.
“I wish it wouldn't have taken me until my late 40s, early 50s, to finally connect with blind and visually-impaired people that I can share experiences with, understand what they're going through, and compare it to what I'm going through. It has helped tremendously.”
“It's just such an opportunity that I never would've had and I never thought that I wanted,” Ostrowski, who is classified as a B1 athlete, added. “But it's another physical athletic outlet for me, and I'm so grateful for Dana and her team and definitely grateful for the backing of the USTA.”
A two-day conference was held in conjunction with the tournament under the direction of Allen and expert panelists from the industry. In addition to more than a dozen players, participants hailed from as far away as Australia, England and Mexico—a diverse celebration for what was a “groundbreaking” moment for the USTA, Snead said.
“The fact that we're able to be a place for folks to be able to gather, to talk about this form of tennis, is incredible,” she continued. “Immediately, folks were saying, 'Hey, next year, can we X, Y, Z? Can we do add this? Can we add this?’ I think the biggest thing here is, yes, it's about the education, and it's about how can we grow the program, but also is how can we continue to provide moments where people can gather, have conversations and get to know each other?”
At the close of the event, one thing was made clear: While Costa has changed the game in this space, the work is just beginning for the USTA.
“Dana's a pioneer,” Allen said. “She’s doing something no one has done yet in this country, and not only is she doing it, but she's bringing it to fruition at the national level. She's the perfect model of taking a small idea and expounding it to a nationwide model, and for that, we're going to be forever grateful for what she's done.”
“From a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective, I think this is true inclusion,” Snead added. “I think that as we talk about integrating wheelchair players with standing players, and playing together, how are we also doing that from a blind and visually impaired perspective? … How are we taking these players who may or may not be mainstream, and how are we integrating them into the mainstream? How are we letting them know that they can? Let’s just add a bounce, let’s just add a bell inside the ball, and let’s play together.”