USTA Player and Coach Development hosts first integrated junior training camp
Earlier this month, American teens Charlie Cooper, Eric Court and Maylee Phelps rubbed shoulders with the world’s best wheelchair tennis players while representing the U.S. at the BNP Paribas World Team Cup in Vilamoura, Portugal. Last weekend, the trio was a part of history at home: They participated in the first integrated junior training camp organized by USTA Player and Coach Development alongside able-bodied peers.
While elite camps like this have been organized by USTA Player and Coach Development since 2008, the latest—held May 13-15 at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.—was the first to have able-bodied and wheelchair players training side-by-side. The camps give high-achieving athletes an opportunity to learn from world-class coaches, strength and conditioning professionals, nutritionists and others at the home for American tennis.
Nearly two dozen promising players, most born in 2008, traveled to Orlando, with 14-year-old Cooper, 18-year-old Court and 15-year-old Phelps accounting for three of 23 who participated in all; with a smaller pool of young talent in the wheelchair division to choose from, the trio was instead selected as a leading American junior boy, girl and quad player. They trained on-court under not only the watchful eyes of both Jason Harnett, the USTA’s director of wheelchair tennis, and USTA national wheelchair coach Paul Walker, but the entire roster of USTA Player and Coach Development coaches and general manager Martin Blackman.
USTA mental skills specialist Dr. Larry Lauer also hosted sessions, and ATP touring pro and former UCLA Bruin Mackenzie McDonald was on hand to share his wisdom with the next generation before he headed back to Europe to play in the French Open.
“This was a great opportunity for Charlie, Eric and Maylee to come here off their great performances in World Team Cup … and work together while some of the things that were identified at World Team Cup were fresh in their minds,” Walker said.
“They just saw the other best players in the world and can now begin the process of improving and closing the gap between themselves and the best by training hard, acquiring and developing new skill sets, testing themselves against the best of the best, and taking away new and greater knowledge of the sport.
“This was a historic camp and hopefully the first of many to come in the future, where aspiring U.S. junior tennis players, both wheelchair and able-bodied, come together to train and pursue their dreams of being the next American champion—while appreciating the opportunities they are being given, and that training alongside players using a wheelchair is and becomes the norm.”
Cooper, the youngest of the three and ranked No. 9 in the ITF junior wheelchair tennis rankings, called the experience meaningful. The La Quinta, Calif. native won five matches in his second BNP Paribas World Team Cup, where he and Phelps helped the U.S. juniors finish seventh—one spot better than in their 2021 debut.
He said: “Camps like these … expose you to coaches that you wouldn’t have at home, while developing [your] relationships with other players when you’re enjoying playing tennis at a nice facility and getting better at the same time. It means a lot that we're training alongside the best able-bodied athletes.”
The camp was another example of the USTA’s broader efforts to integrate tennis that have taken hold in the last two years. After the integration of high-performance operations and USTA national staff, this came on the heels of U.S. Paralympians participating in events at U.S. Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup ties this spring as a part of one, united American delegation.
“To have our best wheelchair juniors together with our best able-bodied juniors, it’s something that both I and a lot of other people had been looking forward to for a long time. We’re really grateful and it’s a beautiful thing,” Blackman said.
“The main thing we want for all of these players is to maximize their development, not just as tennis players, but as people. We love what we do, we love working with them and investing in them.”
Harnett agreed. "We have shown a new blueprint on how we can operate within the same space, and believe me when I say that other Paralympic sports are taking notice," he said. "There is no question that this will be utilized in future sectional and regional level training camps, and it was Player and Coach Development that led the way."