James Moore: How I became a wheelchair tennis ace for the day
The ball is coming straight at me at nasty speed as my wheels glide towards the edge of the court.
I’m supposed to be learning forehand but I can’t help it, it’s time to give my coach David Vellala a surprise.
My backhand was always my best shot when I was able to tear around University College London’s squash courts in a bi-weekly battle with BBC producer Tony Bonsignore.
Whaddya know, it works just as well for tennis. The ball zings across the court, a couple of inches above the net. There’s no way even David’s sprinter’s legs are going to reach it.
“Hey, I didn’t teach you that,” he says. “You trying to win or something?”
Yes, that’s right, he’s on his feet playing to able bodied rules. I’m in a sports wheelchair playing wheelchair rules. Differences? The wheelchair player is allowed two bounces before having to return a shot, one of which has to be within the confines of the court. That’s about it.
Tennis allows the wheelchair bound and able bodied to compete on more or less equal terms without the able bodied player needing to take to wheels.
David approaches the subject of “inclusion” for the disabled with a preacher’s zeal and he’s agreed to teach me the wheelchair version.
He knows both having been temporarily incapacitated by a stroke at the age of 39 and spends part of our session on wheels part on his feet. A hyper-energetic athlete, therapist, osteopath, advocate, he’s also a natural coach. And you know what, tennis seems to work as a mixed sport.
It still takes a bit of getting used to for a former able-bodied squash player and, I’d say, requires a degree more concentration in a chair than on legs. You need to build up speed before letting the chair go and gliding into the shot. That takes quite a bit of judgement and David repeatedly tells me not to use that backhand because I need to get the forehand right. It’s not just because of that zinger.
The legendary Pete "Quadfather" Norfolk, who plays with his racket taped to his hand after an operation to literally cut his spine in half and won a Paralypic doubles silver at 51, doesn’t have much to worry about from me. I’m finding it quite challenging.
Enter David again. “Shout ‘hit’ when you’re going to, just try it,” he counsels. At first I feel a little self conscious. None of the surrounding players at these rather nice courts on Hackney Downs are shouting "hit". Strangely, though, it seems to work. By shouting hit, I actually start to land racquet on ball on my forehand as well as my backhand.
Gratifyingly, serving proves easier to get the hang of (after a few false starts). I have to flick the ball into the air the my left hard because my left arm, having been smashed to bits, doesn’t appreciate being raised high into the air to throw the ball up in a classic service motion. It works well enough.
By the end of the session we manage a passable rally and I’m getting into a grove, enjoying myself.
I’d still say wheelchair basketball is my favourite of the two wheelchair sports I’ve tried out during the Paralympics. But wheelchair tennis certainly has something going for it. And I’m not just talking about Esther Vergeer, the Dutch wheelchair superstar with the model’s looks and the title of most dominant sportswoman on the planet after a seven-year unbeaten run.
Time to let her loose in a singles tournament at Wimbledon please, All England Club. Time for a few more facilities like the one at Hackney where they have sports wheelchairs you can borrow. The biggest challenge for many wheelchair users, as I can testify, is getting out of the house.
The tennis court is a breeze once you’ve managed that.
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