Tennis: Mistry of the happy tennis players: Strong competition for the World Team Cup: 'It's not just your ability, it's wheelchair control as well'

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I NEARLY got beaten at tennis this week by a man with spina bifida. He was a little shrimp, scarcely up to my chest, and confined to a wheelchair. The episode taught me one thing very clearly: never trifle with someone called Giant Mystery.

I'm not exaggerating. The only Briton in the world's top 20 (he's just moved up to No 15), Jayant Mistry insists that his monicker is pronounced just like that. . . Giant Mystery. It's a spectacular name for a man who has proved spectacularly that disability is more often in the eye of the beholder.

Wheelchair tennis has a Monty Python ring to it. I'll admit to a small smile as I drove to Nottingham this week for the World Team Cup, picturing ancient hospital transports blundering around like dodgems as their drivers vainly chased a slowly bouncing ball. I couldn't have been more wrong.

It is agile, fast, attractive and skilful, just like Wimbledon used to be before modern rackets and the powerhouse serve-and-volley game turned the whole thing sterile. In fact, wheelchair tennis at this level would make a darn sight better viewing than anything Sampras, Ivanisevic and the rest of the big hitters serve up nowadays.

You may feel that comparing today's multi-million- dollar stars with someone in a wheelchair, playing ostensibly the same sport, is a bit like comparing Subbuteo United with AC Milan. On the contrary. Even club players would get well beaten by the wheelchair tennis world No 1, Laurent Giammartini, from Cannes, who sharpens his game by taking on able-bodied players.

Giammartini, who beat Mistry last week on his way to winning the British Open, covers the court with remarkable speed. His heavily muscled arms send the specially designed wheelchair, with the wheels cambered at 12 degrees for balance, mobility and manoeuvrability, hurtling round the court to cover the trickiest drop shots and lobs.

A Franco Nero lookalike, right down to the exposed hairy chest, Giammartini would have been a chef in the family business but for a moped accident that crippled him 13 years ago. Now he tours the world playing tournaments, giving exhibitions and showing others (especially those in a similar position) that life in a wheelchair does not have to be eternity in an old folks' home or TV dinners for one. 'I have a great life,' he says.

This positive approach to life seems to come with the game. Wander into the hotel where the 31 teams are staying this week, and your enduring memory will be how refreshingly happy everyone is. Small wonder it is the fastest-growing wheelchair sport, with an estimated 10,000 participants worldwide. Watch the players on court at Nottingham Tennis Centre (the first time the World Team Cup has been held in Britain) and there's an air of fun that has long since vanished from top-flight tennis.

It may be the lack of corrupting megabucks (Giammartini picked up just pounds 800 for his win last week) but it's more likely that the players are revelling in the pleasure of doing almost anything that Stich or Becker can produce, albeit from a lower altitude. The only rule change in wheelchair tennis is that the ball can bounce twice, though this rarely happens. 'All top players play it on one bounce or on the volley,' Mistry says. It even has something that traditional tennis cannot provide: the wheel spokes serve as ideal holders for spare balls.

An assistant sports development officer for Leicestershire County Council (he was a lifeguard before that), Mistry saw a demo of the game at Stoke Mandeville and went straight back to Leicester to buy a racket. At 27, he reckons he is still getting better. 'Most people hit their peak about 32 or 33. It's not just your ability, it's chair control as well.'

Mistry, along with Simon Hatt from London, Peter Norfolk of Farnborough, and Bob Dockerill of London, beat Belgium 3-0 on Wednesday but lost yesterday to the No 1 seeds, Australia, in the quarter-finals. Still, Britain's wheelchair squad have a record that our Davis Cup team can only dream about. They have never finished lower than fifth since 1986.

The sport started 18 years ago in California. Now there are 14 major tournaments worldwide. 'I've been to the United States nine times,' Mistry says. 'But I have to fit the tennis round my job, so I can't play all the tournaments, though the council is very understanding.' He is part of a nationwide coaching scheme to encourage the sport's growth. 'Our main problem is access. In many places, if I want a drink or to go to the toilet, I can't get into the clubhouse. In Leicester, there are only two clubs that are wheelchair accessible.'

The semi-finals and finals of the World Team Cup take place at Nottingham Tennis Centre today and tomorrow. Entry is free.

(Photograph omitted)