Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 3 Sweat and two bounces

This is the next excerpt from chapter 2 of my book. Each chapter toggles between my life narrative before wheelchair tennis and the beginning of my journey in the sport. This post explains the game:

We descended into a beautiful, sunny day in Baton Rouge: upper 70s and low humidity. Perfect for tennis. It makes a lot of sense to hold that tournament in March. Holding it later in the spring and especially in the summer would be cruel and unusual punishment. Temperatures typically climb well into the 90s and stay there. But the killer is the high humidity. And playing on an asphalt outdoor tennis court makes things even worse. In the 2014 Australian Open, temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit before match play was suspended. Players were vomiting and fainting on the courts.

But the straight thermometer reading is not the most accurate way of measuring the danger zone. The Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), developed by the military in the 1950s, takes into account the temperature, humidity, wind speed, and exposure to sunlight. If your skin temperature, based on that measure, rises above 95 degrees, your body becomes increasingly unable to lose body heat through the skin. Eventually, your body organs shut down. You begin to melt. Not a pretty sight.

Quadriplegics know this risk well. Many can’t sweat because of a break in their spinal cords. This can happen in any number of ways. For example, a fellow athlete from Philly, Michael Sullivan, was enjoying a lovely warm day at a lake house with friends a number of years ago. A pier behind the house extended straight into the lake. Michael decided to cool himself by taking a dive into the water. Instead of diving from the end of the pier, he dove from its side. It seemed like a decent point to dive into; the lake was known for the quickness of its depth. What Michael didn’t know was that a portion of the pier running perpendicular to the main pier had been removed but not the supporting pylons, which couldn’t be seen from the pier. He dove in.


And in an instant, Michael was transformed into a quad. Now he can’t sweat because the line of communication between his brain and the sweat glands has been severed. When it gets hot, sweat helps us cool off, in part when the sweat evaporates. But, using the WBGT, when it gets humid, making it harder for the sweat to evaporate, and there’s no breeze to help evaporate the sweat, and it’s a sunny day, disaster looms for everyone, but especially for quads who can’t sweat–I can because I don’t have a spinal cord injury. That’s why you’ll be able to figure out who the non-sweating quads are on the courts by spotting their use of water sprays and wet cooling towels, among other things, to mimic sweat. If the tournament site has indoor courts, quads may be required to play there. This pretty much sucks for three reasons. First, because quads are segregated and removed from the rest of the tournament play. Fifth, because the indoor courts are stuffy. And B, because it’s harder to set up the ESPN crew indoors.

Getting back to the Cajun Classic, when I entered the complex, my eyes immediately were drawn to a tent where colorful flags from all over the world were flapping gently in the breeze. I hadn’t really appreciated until then the extent to which the tournament was truly international. There were athletes from countries all over the world: Australia (3), Belgium (2), Brazil (4), Canada (3), Chile (3), Colombia (1), Guatemala (1), France (7), Germany (2), Israel (2), Japan (2), Mexico (2), the Netherlands (4), Russia (1), South Africa (2), Sweden (1), and the United Kingdom (8). Pretty cool. I love just about anything international, especially IHOP. . .

The Cajun Classic is part of the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, which as of this writing is comprised of 160 tournaments in over forty countries, with $1.5 million in prize money. Wow! Over one . . . (picture Dr. Evil) . . . MILLION dollars! Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah! Hah-hah . . .hah . . . But Dr. Evil, the world’s number 1 male player in 2015, Novak Djokovic, raked in $21,646,145. You would have to jump down to the world’s number 15 player in 2015, Feliciano Lopez, to just about equal what the Wheelchair Tour sprinkles around its tournaments. The Cajun Classic offered $25,000 in prize money. Is this fair? That world-class tennis players in wheelchairs get not even pennies on the dollar compared to their able-bodied counterparts? (I really, really don’t like the “people with disabilities/able-bodied” dichotomy.)

What if we turned things upside down, or actually right-side up, and lived in a world where wheelchair tennis players enjoyed all the money and fame, and able-bodied players received hardly any recognition and struggled to finance their tournament play, let alone put food on the table? Wouldn’t happen because there’s no money in being an inspirational person with a disability. Besides, we do it for the love of the game! Wheelchair tread marks on a face are harder to remove than tattoos.

In its twenty-sixth year, the 2015 Cajun Classic is a “Category 1” tournament, one of six classifications sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), tennis’s world governing body. Among other things, the ITF sets the rules of the game, which are then put into play by national bodies, such as the United States Tennis Association (USTA). There are six categories of ITF-sanctioned tournaments, with the Grand Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) at the top of the pyramid and the Futures at the bottom. In 2015, a number of the other wheelchair tournaments met the ITF classifications—e.g., Pensacola Open (Category1), Indian Wells Tennis Garden Wheelchair Championships (2), Fall Southern PTR Wheelchair Tennis Championships (2), and the U.S. Open Wheelchair Championships (Super Series).

The tournament’s ITF classifications depend on a slew of requirements, such as transportation, the provision of free meals and water/sports drinks for the athletes, first aid availability on site, at least three days of competition, facilities to store the sports wheelchairs overnight, adequate shade, a repair station with an air compressor (for the wheelchair tires), an onsite players’ lounge, types of officiating, and prize money. The higher the tournament in the pyramid, the more requirements the organizers have to meet.

The first logistical task—sorry? Oh, right, how the game got started and how it’s played. The birth of wheelchair tennis goes back to 1976 when Brad Parks, an 18-year-old gifted freestyle skier, suffered a bad fall on the slopes and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. During his time in rehabilitation, he met wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnebraker and they came up with idea of playing tennis in a wheelchair. From there, wheelchair tennis exploded—at about the same time the game itself became wildly popular in the United States. In 1992, wheelchair tennis became a full medal sport at the Paralympics in Barcelona. Today, the game is played in more than 100 countries. Very cool.

To play competitively, you have to have a medically diagnosed permanent mobility-related physical disability that results in substantial or total loss of function in one or more lower extremities. For example, if one or both of your legs are paralyzed or if one of your legs has been amputated. If one or both of your arms are also similarly impaired you can qualify to play in the quadriplegic division. In the big tournaments, you’ll have the Open and Quad divisions, populated by virtually all of the professional international and U.S. athletes. Below those divisions are USTA-designated A, B, and C divisions, with A being the most seasoned players and C being the so-so players. At one time there was a D division for novices but that category is virtually gone. Instead, some tournaments will have a free novice event to attract new players. Frankly, I wish the USTA had a “gutter” division, which is where at the time of the Cajun Classic I believed I belonged.

How is the game played? Just like the able-bodied game, only wheelchair tennis players get two bounces instead of one before they have to strike the ball. The second bounce can be either in or out of the court’s boundaries. Did you (not actually you—just a straw person) call that a wuss rule, huh, did ya? Try getting into a wheelchair and play the game. You’ll be like a deer in the headlights and pee in your pants when the ball comes over the net at you. Actually, the really good wheelchair tennis players take it on the first bounce—and from seemingly impossible angles. When I first tried to do that, I peed in my pants. . .

Getting back to the rules, the wheelchair is considered part of the athlete’s body. So just like able-bodied tennis, if the ball comes over the net and hits any part of your wheelchair, you lose the point. When you do that to your opponent, you’re supposed to say “sorry” but secretly you loved it. Booyah! In your mind you do a fist pump.

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