Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 6 The tournament idiot

Here’s the last excerpt from chapter two of my book. It’s about the Cajun Classic’s tournament idiot.

My first match in the C division was against Troy Eap, an easy going guy in his 30s who hailed from Upper Darby, PA.  He became a paraplegic in 2009 after a 1,200 pound slab of granite fell on him and crushed his spine. (How long did it take him to become easy going after such a horrendous accident?) I should’ve been nervous as I was taped up and strapped into the wheelchair. Actually I should’ve been throwing up. Prior to that match, I had never played a full set of tennis in a wheelchair. What the hell was I doing playing in one of the biggest, most prestigious tournaments in the country?

I was clueless. And when you’re clueless, you don’t feel fear or embarrassment.

At that point in my tennis career, it took me about half an hour to prepare for a match. A volunteer had to help me with everything. Let me take a moment to tell you about these great folks. They’re men and women and boys and girls who’re critical to running the tournament, especially one the size of the Cajun Classic. You start with the organization that puts the whole thing together. For the Cajun Classic, it’s the Baton Rouge Wheelchair Tennis Association, an all-volunteer, non-profit outfit that evolved from trauma: In 1983, a tennis coach’s godchild became a quad after being in a car accident and tennis became a way to help the kid cope with her transformed body.

Then you have the tournament director who coordinates the whole event and all of the volunteers. Jennifer Edmonson, the Cajun Classic’s director, works with a committee of volunteers who in turn coordinate the work of all the other volunteers. In the big tournaments, there’s also a person who’s a conduit for information between the director and the players, especially relating to logistics such as gathering information from the athletes about flight arrivals—Marilu Major is that person at the Cajun Classic. The volunteers “in the trenches” range from persons who serve food to the athletes to mostly kids who fetch balls during the match. It’s not uncommon to have volunteers who are nursing or physical therapy students. For some, it’s the first time seeing the game and working with wheelchair athletes.

Interestingly, virtually all of the volunteers at the tournaments are able-bodied. Why is that? Hmmm . . . Maybe there’re practical reasons. For example, it might be difficult for a person with a disability to serve food to the athletes. If I were to try that, half of the food would end up on the floor because of the severe weakness in my hands. But would paraplegics have the same problem? I doubt it. When you really think about it, a person with physical challenges could do most of the things an the tournament, including fetching balls.

So what gives? Well, even though most of us could do the stuff, it may take longer for us to do it. I could tape a serving spoon to my hand, but scooping out jumbalaya to a hundred people would take longer than it would for servers without my physical challenges. Those of us with disabilities—I’ll use “disabilities” and “physical challenges” interchangeably—know that doing activities of daily living may take three times longer or more to accomplish than our able-bodied friends. In the morning, an able-bodied person can hop out of bed when the alarm sounds and jump in the shower within a minute. A paraplegic may have to use a “transfer board” to move from her bed to the wheelchair, and use the board again to transfer from the wheelchair to the shower chair. This takes time, much more than a minute. An able-bodied person or a para can button a shirt in seconds. I have to use a “buttoner,” an assistive device that hooks the button and pulls it through the button hole. Sometimes it takes me literally five minutes to deal with one button. All of this is to say that although persons with physical challenges could do most of the things at tournaments, cumulatively the additional time required to do those things would slow the tournament way down, which would be a real problem when you’re trying to pack a tournament into just a few days. But it’s not as if the organizers turn away volunteers with disabilities. Within any possible pool of tournament volunteers, only a very small fraction would be persons with disabilities.

In a way, the able-bodied/challenged-bodied dichotomy is useful for another important reason: It gives volunteers an opportunity to do something that’s meaningful for them. Perhaps one person does it because she’s a therapist and profoundly supports, and wants to contribute to, an event that celebrates the human spirit. Another does it for profound religious reasons. Yet another volunteers out of civic duty. And perhaps there are those who think wheelchair tennis rocks and want to see it up close. I say, right on to all of these motivating factors! All the tournament’s participants get something really valuable out of it that can’t be quantified in many cases. And it’s not pity, whether of oneself or others. Besides, if I can get an extra brownie out of a volunteer, awesome!

Getting back to my first match, I needed help with just about everything. Sports wheelchairs don’t have brakes, so someone had to hold the chair while I literally fell into it—once I bend my knees I go into a freefall because of the extreme weakness in my upper legs. After I got the right sitting spot on the chair, someone had to tighten my lumbar brace around my lower trunk. I did this because my trunk muscles are weak—but not paralyzed. Without the brace, back then at least, I would wreck my back after repeatedly trying to turn the chair on a dime and swing the racquet during the match.

After my brace was in place, a volunteer took my Velcro belt and strapped my hips tightly to the chair. Next came my feet. The footplate is underneath me. Because of my paralysis below the knees, a volunteer had to take another Velcro belt and secure my feet tightly to the footplate. Then I put a baseball glove on my right hand with a tacky palm to give me a good grip on my rims. Finally came the racquet and the taping procedure I told you about. Once that was done, I always prayed that I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. Talk about panic!

When Troy and I were both ready, we rolled to the middle of the net, where the ref explained the format–the best two out of three sets wins–and tossed the coin to determine who would serve and receive. Troy won the toss and he elected to serve. The warm-up before the match should’ve given me a clue that I was facing imminent disaster. I missed almost every ball he hit to me. If I did hit it, it went sailing to Beijing or somewhere close to it. If the ball didn’t come straight to me, I could hardly move my wheelchair to get to it. But I had no fear. I wasn’t embarrassed.

As we warmed up, I kept running the fundamental strategy of wheelchair tennis through my head. If you look at able-bodied tennis, most of the balls are struck at the baseline or a bit further back. If your opponent hits the ball to the right side of the court, you move quickly to the ball, return it, and, in most cases, return quickly along the baseline to the center of the court. If a short ball comes over the net, you get to it, return it, and volley the next one or, depending on where you are on the court, haul ass back to the baseline at the center.

You use the same principles in wheelchair tennis, but now you have to maneuver the chair, not your legs and feet. So the spot at the center-court baseline is called “the hub.” That’s where you want to be most of the time. If the ball comes to your left, you have to push yourself to the ball and, if you’re a lefty, return the ball with a forehand and then spin your chair to the inside of the court and return to the hub. If you’re right-handed, after you return the ball with a backhand, you spin yourself to the outside of the court and return to the hub. Rarely will you see wheelchair players move into the court for a volley. You only do that when you’re absolutely certain you can get to the ball and put it away. It’s simply too easy for your opponent to lob the ball over you—you can’t jump out of your chair to get the height you need to reach the ball. And unless you’re superfast on the court, there’s no way you’ll get to the ball. The strategy of staying back is especially evident in wheelchair tennis doubles. In the able-bodied game, if you’re serving, your partner will position herself close to the net for the volleys. You won’t see that much in wheelchair tennis. Both players, especially the less skilled, will remain at or behind the baseline.

I don’t remember much after Troy’s first serve. My mind went blank and I forgot everything, much like what happened when I was first called on in law school. He had pity on me, I suppose, because the match finished minutes after it started, 6-0, 6-0. Why prolong the torture? People who watched the carnage might have said, “What in God’s name is that fool doing on the court?” I might have proclaimed in my best lawyer-turned-professor-turned-wheelchair-tennis-player full-throated voice of conviction, “I am Superman!” Then I might have rolled to the stands and autographed tennis balls offered to me by stunned fans. “Look what I got, mom, a tennis ball signed by the tournament idiot!” Yeah . . . clueless.

I was similarly clueless in my consolation match, losing 6-0, 6-0 to my opponent, who constantly asked me if I was alright. But I didn’t stop there. I also lost my doubles match, 6-0, 6-1. I was matched up with Frank Johnson, a Desert Storm veteran from Philly. A single-leg amputee, he was massive, with a commanding height from his wheelchair. That guy could move. I told him to go for the balls I couldn’t get to, which meant virtually all of them. I could’ve eaten a pizza during the match.

But I was having the time of my life. The best on-court experience was my Seniors B/C Doubles match with my partner—the tournament paired me up–Pat Mulvihill, a sixty-five-year-old Vietnam vet from Natchez, Mississippi. Throughout the tournament, I frequently heard people mention him with great fondness. When I finally met him, I could see why.  Just hours before the match, I wheeled up to him and introduced myself. He shook my outstretched hand with a big, welcoming grin. “So you’re the one!” he said in a thick southern drawl. I didn’t know whether he meant that I was his doubles partner or that he had heard I was the tournament idiot. Probably both. Pat lost both of his legs in 1970 when he stepped on a booby-trap during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. A number of years later, when wheelchair tennis came on the scene, he picked up a racquet and fell in love with the game. He told me proudly that he had played in every Cajun Classic—twenty-six years of the tournament. Wow.

We played our match in the evening. It was my first ever wheelchair tennis doubles match. And I had no clue what to do. What little training I had was playing singles. When it was my turn to serve—at that time I used an underhanded serve, I rolled to the middle of the baseline. “Hold it,” Pat blurted out. “You’ve never played doubles, have you?” “Uh . . . no, Pat,” I said in my best tournament idiot voice. With a twinkle in his eye, he showed me how in doubles you have to serve from a wider angle to get the best coverage of the court. “Got it! Thanks, Pat!” “No problem, my friend! Noooo problem! Let’s get ‘em, partner!” Of course, playing out wider made no difference. I continued to flail. But Pat kept encouraging me to stay in the game. We lost. After the match I said, “Pat, this was so much fun. Thanks for putting up with me. I would be honored to play with you again!” “Absolutely, my friend! Just keep at it. Your game will get better!” What a guy.

That was the only time the tournament paired me up with him. Hmmm . . That reminds me of a recent tournament where I was paired up with a French Canadian. That itself spelled trouble. I first saw him at the Cajun Classic. And I’m sure he saw or heard of the tournament idiot. When I saw this fellow at the recent tournament, I approached him and, in my best idiot voice, introduced myself and said I looked forward to playing with him. The first thing he said to me was, “Are you any better?” Like I said, he’s a French Canadian. And I’m the tournament idiot.

The Bayou Boys, my two youngest brothers, Pat and Carlos, came to my matches. Lana, Pat’s partner, made it to a couple as well. I warned them about my game, but they jokingly said they came to the tournament for the good food—and it was really good Cajun stuff according to them. Carlos spent most of the time taking photos of me with his expensive camera—he’s become a great photographer. With his skills, some of the photos of me in action looked like I actually knew what I was doing. Meanwhile, Pat, who inherited my father’s humor, supplied me with a stream of funny one-liners to help me keep my spirits up as I was getting pummeled. Both bro’s are mind-bogglingly good cooks. During a long break in the tournament, we went to Pat’s place and feasted on smoked salmon, boudin sausage, and bottles of red wine while we talked fondly of the glory days.

The days when I played football, ran track, and played tennis for my high school. The days when I took for granted how exquisitely the human body is wired to do so many things for you, from taking a simple step forward to swinging a tennis racquet. The days when I was invincible. . . and not the tournament idiot.


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