The US Open, Ableism, and the Winningest Athlete You Didn’t Know in the Sport You May Not Have Seen

When it was announced that the 2020 US Open Tennis Championship would begin at the end of August as usual, there was also something unusual. Wheelchair tennis had not been included in the tournament plans.

The players and their supporters were up in arms, and rightfully so. Australian quad singles player Dylan Alcott, a ten-time Grand Slam champion and the current world number one in quad singles, took to Twitter after the decision was made. Alcott cited that he has done more than enough in his tennis career to play in this year’s open, but that he “missed the only thing that mattered, being able to walk.”

Alcott told The Today Show that this act of ableism set “a really dangerous example for people all around the world that we are second rate citizens and we aren’t worth as much as our able-bodied counterparts.”

With ten grand slams and two Paralympic gold medals in quad tennis, not to mention the Paralympic gold medal in wheelchair basketball he won at just 17 years of age, Dylan Alcott is anything but second rate.

Other wheelchair tennis players noted that they were not consulted in the decision to ax the tournament for 2020. Alcott spoke with three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray, who voiced support for the wheelchair players. Murray, along with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, voiced their aggravation and called upon tournament personnel to reinstate the wheelchair events.

Immediately after the backlash began, USTA officials worked on creating tournament options for the wheelchair events. Players were offered three different layouts: an event held at the USTA National Campus in Florida later in the year, a cash payment to be divided among the players, or a tournament with less prize money than the 2019 US Open.

The players were given a choice, given a voice, and chose to play this year’s tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City, beginning Sept. 10.

This might have been the first that you heard of the wheelchair tennis events, so here are some simple rules.

The courts are the same size as tennis courts, with no alterations made to the height of the nets. However, the ball is allowed to bounce twice in wheelchair tennis matches. The biggest difference between the sports is the size of the tournament. While the bracket for a singles tennis tournament houses 128 players, a wheelchair tennis draw consists of only eight players. Eight.

According to the International Paralympic Committee, there are two sport classes of wheelchair tennis athletes: open and quad. Open class athletes experience a permanent impairment with one or both of their lower extremities, but have full function of their upper body. Players in the quad classification have both lower limb impairment and impairment in their arm or hand, making it difficult to handle the racquet or chair wheels. Quad players will sometimes have the racquet strapped to their hand during playing.

Wheelchair Tennis in the Majors

While the sport of wheelchair tennis gained traction in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s and then spread around the globe, it was not until 1991 that the US Open held its first wheelchair tennis tournament. The Australian Open followed in 2002, with the French Open adding wheelchair events in 2007. Wimbledon was a little different.

For the historic Wimbledon Championships, draped in tradition, adding the wheelchair events to their tournament took a bit longer. They established wheelchair doubles events beginning in 2001, but singles tournaments were left out. Even when the Olympic and Paralympic Games took place in London in 2012 and the Olympic tennis events were hosted at the All England Club on grass, the wheelchair tennis events of the Paralympics were played on hard courts at an alternate site.

It was not until 2016, that the Wimbledon Championships established wheelchair tennis singles tournaments. Club officials cited the growing popularity and rising athleticism of the sport as reasons to include the events on the Championships.

Geoff Newton, a board member of the All England Club, told The New York Times, “The athletes have proven themselves as being a sufficient standard, and drawing sufficient spectator interest, to warrant inclusion in the Championships. The Championships, obviously, wants to be inclusive, and in 2016 everything came together.”

Obviously, it took them a little too long to come to that decision.

Apparently, wheelchair tennis events were not successful enough at the other majors to warrant them a spot with the all-white-wearing elites.

Apparently, no one at the All England Club had heard of the winningest athlete in all of sports, who just happened to play women’s wheelchair tennis.

The Winningest Athlete in All of Sports

You might not have heard of her before, but her name is Esther Vergeer.

Who else can say that they went undefeated for 10 years with a consecutive match win streak of 470 wins? Not Roger Federer. Not UCONN Women’s Basketball. No one.

Esther Vergeer is a wheelchair tennis athlete from the Netherlands, a country that has dominated the sport of wheelchair tennis for decades. She was left paralyzed at the age of eight after a surgery to remove blood vessels around her spinal cord. Tennis gave her a rush of freedom and adrenaline.

With a career draped in gold, including seven Paralympic gold medals, 48 grand slam titles of combined singles and doubles events before retiring in 2015, Vergeer is the most decorated wheelchair tennis athlete.

In 2015, she told CNN that her hope for wheelchair tennis is to be an integrated and inclusive sport. Although there is a full fledged tournament schedule for wheelchair tennis events, the biggest events are at the majors. “Able-bodied tournaments are one of the best platforms we have to showcase what people with disabilities can do. To show we are just human beings with ambition and a love of competition,” said Vergeer.

And now after completing treatment and beating her latest opponent, breast cancer, she can update her record to 471-0.

(Cover Photo: Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

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