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How wheelchair tennis provides a successful model for adaptive sports

Recreational and competitive sports played by people with disabilities are growing in popularity, and the skill levels of the athletes are rising. One of the more established adaptive sports is wheelchair tennis. William Brangham went to the U.S. Open in New York recently to hear what some of the top players of this now 40-year-old sport have learned on and off the court.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Adaptive sports, recreational or competitive sports played by people with disabilities, are growing in popularity, as are the skill levels of the athletes.

    One of the established growing sports is wheelchair tennis.

    William Brangham went to the U.S. Open in New York to talk with some of the top players.

  • William Brangham:

    Twenty-eight-year-old Dana Mathewson hits hard. She's the number one American women's wheelchair tennis player, competing at the world's top tournaments, including this, her third U.S. Open.

    Mathewson started as a soccer player, but, at age 10, she contracted a rare neurological disease. In a matter of minutes, she went from running on the field to being paralyzed from the waist down.

    During this difficult time, her mom, who's a doctor, encouraged her to try tennis.

  • Dana Mathewson:

    When I heard about adaptive sports, I didn't think that they would be anything like what you saw today. I didn't think they would be competitive.

  • William Brangham:

    Flash-forward 19 years. Mathewson has represented the U.S. in World Cup team tennis nine times.

    This September, playing for Team USA, she won a gold medal in doubles and a bronze in singles at the Pan-American Games in Peru.

    Is it just as fierce?

  • Dana Mathewson:

    Definitely.

  • William Brangham:

    Are you guys just as rough on each other and just as brutal?

  • Dana Mathewson:

    Definitely.

    When you have a disability or you have to come back from certain hardships, and then to also play a sport, that's a type of really resilient person.

  • William Brangham:

    That type of resilience is shown in other adaptive pro sports, like wheelchair basketball, wheelchair racing and skiing, all growing in popularity.

  • Jason Harnett:

    We really feel like that respect has arrived. You're seeing the very, very best skill level I would equate to the able-bodied side.

  • William Brangham:

    Jason Harnett is the U.S. Tennis Association's head coach for the Paralympic team. He's known Mathewson since she first picked up a racquet.

    The rules for wheelchair tennis are the same as for able-bodied tennis, with one exception: You get two bounces, if players need the additional time to get to the ball.

    Here at the U.S. Open, the world's top eight men and top eight women were competing, as were the best four quadriplegic players those who have at least three extremities affected by a permanent disability. They compete in a separate competition.

  • Jason Harnett:

    If you think about them using the chair, if I have to move to my left or my right, I actually have to turn the chair and push forward. There is no sidestep out. There is no cross-step.

  • Joanne Wallen:

    It's a big stage.

  • William Brangham:

    Jo Wallen directs the wheelchair tournament at the U.S. Open. And she says players have to hit the same tough shots, but they also have to quickly steer their chair, often making figure eights, so they can track the ball and be ready for the return shot.

  • Joanne Wallen:

    It's the maneuvering the chair that messes up the able-bodied person.

  • William Brangham:

    Some big names in able-bodied tennis, like Novak Djokovic and Frances Tiafoe, have tried playing from a chair, and discovered just how hard it is.

  • Gustavo Fernandez:

    I always dreamed to be a professional sports player. It was tennis, what I was meant to do.

  • William Brangham:

    Argentinean Gustavo Fernandez is the number one ranked wheelchair tennis player in the world.

    In 2019, he's won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. When we caught up with him at the U.S. Open, he was going for his final of the Grand Slams.

    Fernandez has been in a wheelchair since he was a year-old as a result of a spinal cord injury.

  • Gustavo Fernandez:

    I love to compete. And competition, it means everything to me.

  • William Brangham:

    He said he feels a need to not only grow as a competitor, but to grow this sport, in part to change perceptions.

  • Gustavo Fernandez:

    Sometimes, the ignorance makes you not see what it really is. And once you learn about it, you will see that it's a professional sport with high-quality tennis. And I think, in that way, it will grow by itself.

  • William Brangham:

    Fernandez's matches are intense.

  • Man:

    Nice shot by Fernandez.

  • William Brangham:

    On this day, he blew a tire on the hot court.

  • Man:

    There's the wheelchair repair technician.

  • William Brangham:

    Enter Mike Zangari. He's a pioneer who played wheelchair tennis himself for 35 years and basketball before that.

    He's ready, courtside, to repair these lightweight, high-end titanium chairs that can run into the thousands of dollars.

  • Mike Zangari:

    If you take your conventional hospital chair or the ones you see in the airport or the ones I got my start in, I would relate them to being a Hummer.

  • William Brangham:

    A Hummer?

  • Mike Zangari:

    Big, clunky. Now, comparing to these chairs, that's what you have out there. You have Lamborghinis.

  • William Brangham:

    Wheelchair tennis is slowly gaining traction. There are grassroots levels up to professional ranks, and the sport is represented at all four Grand Slam events around the world.

    But it's not without its challenges: building a fan base, getting more sponsors, even offering higher prize money. Wheelchair Grand Slam winners take home just over $33,000, compared to the millions for the able-bodied winners.

    Certain players, like six-time U.S. Open singles champion and world number two Shingo Kunieda of Japan, have a literal following. After this recent doubles win with Gustavo Fernandez, fans flocked to him.

    But they're nowhere near enough to fill the cavernous stadium. Officials are also hoping the sport will gain more popularity as top competitors continue their U.S. Open with a much larger pool of players, like here in Saint Louis.

    These more intimate venues help build community. The players ate together, pumped up their own tires, helped each other out, and generally celebrated each other's achievements.

    Fernandez and Mathewson were part of that, while remaining laser-focused on their own goals.

    In New York, I asked them, what drives them?

  • Dana Mathewson:

    The more and more that I get exposed to different things, the more that I realize what I can do with this disability and the things that it's afforded my life, the more I actually feel really grateful for it, which is kind a weird thing to say. A lot of people…

  • William Brangham:

    Grateful?

  • Dana Mathewson:

    Yes, a lot of people wouldn't really look at a disability and say that it's a great thing.

    I think that's one of the more unfortunate attitudes that people have about disability, that, if someone can't walk, their life must suck. This disability has allowed me to represent my country. I get to travel the world for a living. I get to play a sport for a living.

  • Gustavo Fernandez:

    I like really much what I do, and I respect it and I think I'm quite good at it, because I have been — I have worked for it. So if there's 10 people, 10,000, one billion people watching it, for me, it will mean the same.

  • William Brangham:

    Tennis' year seemingly never stops. Players are now competing in Europe, before heading to the season-ender in Orlando.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Flushing Meadows, New York.

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