Wheelchair Tennis Spotlight:
Erin Maher | May 9, 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.
Steve Baldwin has amassed quite the career. The former pro wheelchair tennis player is a two-time Paralympian (2012, 2016), a Parapan American Games semifinalist and six-time U.S. World Team Cup member. In February, Baldwin found himself back in the game, only this time as head coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater.
USTA.com recently caught up with Baldwin at the 2019 Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships, where he led San Diego State University to the final.
USTA.com: So how did you first get involved with wheelchair tennis?
Steve Baldwin: I knew about it in the early '90s. ADVERTISEMENT I first saw it at a sports camp at the University of Illinois. Probably in like 1990, something like that. But I first became involved in 1997. Literally someone put a flyer in my hand, and I was ready to do something like that. I had been an athlete—a soccer player—before I was hurt. But for 10 years I didn’t know how to do that, how to be an athlete.
Someone gave me a flyer, I went to the program. I had taken a class in college because I needed a PE [physical education requirement]. But I somehow didn’t know about tennis chairs. The second or third time I went out, they let me use one of the program chairs, and that’s when the fire really lit for me, because for the first time moving around the court, in my everyday chair, you’re like, "Wow, the court is big, and I’m super-slow. This stinks." Then I got in the tennis chair and was like, "Now I feel like an athlete!" And that was kind of that, and I was hooked.
USTA.com: You went on to become a Top-10 ranked wheelchair tennis player and a Paralympian. What made you not only decide to stick with wheelchair tennis, but excel at it and play at the elite level?
Steve Baldwin: I don’t know. The right kind of need for adulation? I don’t know. I loved it. It fed a real need in me to compete and pursue a goal and ambition. There’s a path to follow. I mean there’s various levels of achievement that you can follow.
I remember going to my very first tournament as a C-level player, and thinking this was amazing. I’d never seen so many disabled people in my life in one place. That was amazing in and of itself.
But then I watched the real high-level players play. They just looked like they were from outer space—just the way they were playing, the way they were hitting the ball, the way they were moving—and it affected me deeply. I saw them get off the court and get into chairs, just like me. I remember being there, in Irvine [Calif.], and thinking, "I think I can make the Olympics someday." Just like a crystal-clear thought.
So I worked for it. I worked super-hard for it. And eventually, through the many twists and turns of life, I got there.
USTA.com: That’s amazing. So now you’ve returned to the court in a new role, as a coach for your alma mater, San Diego State University. What made you want to get involved?
Steve Baldwin: It was the right opportunity at the right time. I have two little kids now, and the oldest one is going to be in kindergarten in the fall, and I left the tour. I was getting older, but I also really wanted to be home with the little ones while they’re little, and so I was starting to look around for what I was going to do after, and the program was starting at San Diego State.
Ahkeel Whitehead, the adapted athletics program director at San Diego, was persistent. He realized I was his coach before I realized I was his coach. I live a mile from there. When the wheelchair tennis coaching gig pops up a mile away from your house at your alma mater when you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do, it feels like serendipity. It really does. I’m a teacher in my other life, anyway. I have a degree in literature.
So to teach, to coach, to be involved, to help people improve at a thing, watch them learn and process and grow at an activity, is wonderful, anyway. But to do it in an activity like wheelchair tennis, where I have spent so much of my life, is gratifying, which is such a small word for such a big thing.
USTA.com: What challenges have you faced so far in coaching?
Steve Baldwin: You know, getting ourselves arranged in the university. Having them recognize what we’re doing. This is the growth process of any program. That’s been a big challenge because we’re inventing this from scratch.
Personally, kind of finding the balance again. You know, I’m in Florida this weekend, and my wife and kids are home, and that’s a stress on a family, always. But she’s super supportive. She was like, "Go. This is a really important thing for you to get to do."
USTA.com: On the opposite side of that, what have you enjoyed most about coaching so far?
Steve Baldwin: Teaching. Jose [Estrada] played the best today I’ve ever seen him play, and I could not be more proud to see the things that you work on with them. See the things you make them work on, how they respond to it and how they incorporate it into their sense and ability as players. You get to see growth almost in live time. That is tremendously exciting.
And just the chance to be with them. College kids crack me up. They’re the most hysterically wonderful people in my general experience.
USTA.com: Finally, what advice would you give to someone thinking about trying wheelchair tennis for the first time?
Steve Baldwin: Go do it. Yeah, go do it, and don’t get frustrated. We play a difficult game. But the joy of the well-struck ball is infectious, and all it takes is one [shot].
Don’t get frustrated because everybody was brand new at some point. It takes a long time to learn. In addition to the fun of the game, the camaraderie and the community of wheelchair tennis, from the high-level tour to the local organizations, is pretty marvelous.
This is actually a really neat thing—you find a peer group that you didn’t necessarily know you had. One of the super things about wheelchair tennis is that it’s super easy to cross over. You got able-bodied friends or family? So easy to go out and hit. There’s no big adjustment that has to be made. You have balls and racquets? Let’s go play.
Follow all the wheelchair tennis action on Facebook at USTA Wheelchair Tennis.
Pictured above: Steve Baldwin at the 2019 USTA Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships. (Photo Credit: Erin Maher/USTA)