Wheelchair Tennis Spotlight:
Erin Maher | May 30, 2019
In honor of National Mobility Awareness Month in May, USTA.com is highlighting collegiate wheelchair tennis players and coaches who keep the game rolling and serve as ambassadors for the sport.
Chuck McCuen has a storied tennis coaching career. A collegiate tennis player himself, McCuen coached 19 years at Georgia State University and another 14 years at Clemson University, both NCAA Division I schools. In total, he amassed 360 career wins, and he led the Tigers to back-to-back appearances at the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and 2014. McCuen also founded the first collegiate wheelchair tennis team in the United States at Georgia State.
USTA.com caught up with McCuen at the 2019 USTA Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships in April, where he recently came out of retirement to coach the new wheelchair tennis team at Clemson.ADVERTISEMENT
USTA.com: You have a storied career in collegiate tennis, coaching for the likes of Georgia State and Clemson. What motivated you to become a coach?
Chuck McCuen: Gosh, I started playing tennis when I was about 15 and fell in love. Tennis was in my blood.
So sort of a funny background story, our tennis center is called the “Hoke Sloan Tennis Center,” and that was my great uncle. I didn’t even know growing up that he was a tennis coach at Clemson and played until I got back to Clemson many, many years later and realized, “Gosh, that’s a relative.” And he was actually a tennis coach. I wonder if it’s genetic.
USTA.com: How did you make the connection that the tennis center was named after your great uncle?
Chuck McCuen: I was born and raised in Atlanta and spent summers up in the Clemson area with a lot of family members there but never really went to the tennis courts because, you know, you’re oblivious when you’re a kid. And then one day, I looked up, and there’s this sign, and I’m like, “I think I know that guy.”
And I was like, “Hey, mom, who is that?”
And she said, “That’d be your great uncle.”
I started doing research and, like, wow. He’s sort of the father of tennis at Clemson.
USTA.com: Not only did you coach able-bodied tennis at Georgia State, but you also helped found the first wheelchair tennis program there. How did you get involved in that?
Chuck McCuen: It was right after the Olympic games in Atlanta. My wife and I were very involved. I was teaching at Georgia State and, of course, coaching the teams. A lot of the venues from the Olympics were hosted at Georgia State as well as Georgia Tech, so I was very involved with the planning and implementation of those teams. And right after that, the Paralympics started, and some of the wheelchair athletes came over and started to do some training and doing some things at Georgia State.
I had never seen wheelchair tennis before, and all of a sudden I’m watching them, and I was just blown away. They were just incredible athletes. I had to stop and ask them a million questions. I just found out that they were incredible people, so passionate. And I said, “Man, I think I got to do this.”
[The nonprofit organization] BlazeSports was sort of a benefactor of the Paralympic Games, as most people are after the Olympic Games, and they set up a headquarters in Atlanta. Got to know some of those folks, and we were very fortunate enough to get a grant, and I got to go out and find some world-class players, and say, “Hey, do you want to come back to school and get a graduate degree or an undergraduate degree? We’ll fund you, we’ll house you, and I’ll mess you up as a coach.”
USTA.com: Do you see any major differences coaching able-bodied players versus wheelchair tennis players?
Chuck McCuen: Then to now, you know, 20 years ago to now, no. Today I would say there’s not. You treat them exactly the same; you have the same expectations. Back then, yes, learning that there are different challenges, different strategies for different positions on the court because they are in a chair versus able-bodied. But, tennis is tennis. Put balls in play, and get there as fast as you can.
USTA.com: What do you enjoy most about coaching?
Chuck McCuen: I think what you learn from the players. I always say I learn so much more from them than they’ll ever learn from me. And gosh, their experiences. You vicariously get to know them, their backgrounds and their passions. You help them to reach their potential, their full potential, and I think that for me it’s incredibly rewarding.
USTA.com: Since you started the wheelchair tennis program at Georgia State, how have you seen the sport of wheelchair tennis evolve?
Chuck McCuen: Definitely the weight of the chairs and the design of the chairs and how the technology has evolved to such high levels. Things are so much lighter now, and maneuverability is so much greater. There’s so much more coaching and so much more awareness, even though it’s not where we all want it to be.
There are opportunities for players in chairs to get some early coaching. So I just think their stroke production is better, they’ve evolved at such a greater rate.
USTA.com: Did you ever think that when you started the program at Georgia State that collegiate wheelchair tennis would grow to where it is now, with events like the USTA Collegiate Wheelchair National Championships?
Chuck McCuen: Yes. I’m an eternal optimist. And, yeah, you know, when you start something, and I am not going to take any credit I didn’t start anything, people blessed me with that opportunity. But, at the end of the day, I thought, yeah, if you build it, they will come.
I was just fortunate enough to have an opportunity to work with that first team, and now look where we are. All these years later, I get to come back and see this, and man, I’m blown away.
USTA.com: What advice would you give to someone who is considering trying wheelchair tennis for the first time?
Chuck McCuen: Be patient. Get advice. Reach out to those who may have already been down that path. Use those great resources. One thing I love about wheelchair players is that they’re so willing to help, and they’re so willing to share their experiences and their knowledge, and I think that’s amazing.
So if you’re a player, find others in your community, or even far away. Reach out to them, introduce yourself, be bold and say, “Hey, what can I do to be a good wheelchair tennis player? What path did you take?” And get that help.
Follow all the wheelchair tennis action on Facebook at USTA Wheelchair Tennis.
Pictured above: Chuck McCuen at the 2019 USTA Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships. (Photo Credit: Erin Maher/USTA)