If you were at Flushing Meadows, New York City, in the week ending on September 11 and only caught the tennis events won by Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz and Poland’s Iga Świątek then you really didn’t catch all that the U.S. Open 2022 had to offer. And if you missed the Wheelchair Tennis Championships there then you really missed out on what’s been a growing and exciting part of the U.S. Open and all of tennis.
Grand Slam Runs By Diede de Groot and Shingo Kunieda
The 2022 U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships featured historic runs by not one but two perennial champions who should be smack in the middle of any greatest of all-time (GOAT) tennis player conversations. The Netherlands’ Diede de Groot won the women’s title for the fifth straight time after defeating Japan’s Yui Kamiji 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 in the finals. In the process, de Groot completed a Grand Slam in wheelchair singles for the second straight year. Yes, you heard that correctly, she’s won all four major championships, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open, for not just one but two consecutive years. Winning every single major championship in a sport in a year would kind of qualify as dominant, period. In fact, de Groot made it a golden slam in 2022 when she added a Paralympic gold medal in Tokyo, Japan, along with the four major titles.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Shingo Kunieda, who had already assembled 28 major singles titles over the years in a very GOAT-ish manner, tried to become the first man to garner the wheelchair singles Grand Slam. He had swept through the other three majors earlier this year. Before the 2922 U.S. Open semi-finals, Kunieda told me that “He was playing well. I like the U.S. Open. Playing on hard courts is comfortable.” However, in the finals, Britain’s Alfie Hewett slammed down Kunieda’s Grand Slam aspirations. 7-6, 6-1. Nevertheless, in the Grand scheme of things, that loss was just a drop-shot in a career that has many calling Kunieda the GOAT among men and has earned Kunieda quite a fan following.
You can’t fully appreciate wheelchair tennis, or tennis, in general, for that matter, until you’ve seen players like de Groot and Kunieda play live. The pace at which both hit their groundstrokes is striking, especially when you consider the fact that all of the power comes from their upper body strength. Imagine trying to hit a ball over the net from a seated position. Then try to do that while generating topspin and getting the ball deep in your opponent’s backcourt. Oh, and try not to hit yourself or the chair along the way. If you’ve managed to do all that, throw another world class athlete on the other side of the net to pound the ball back at you.
The wheelchair tennis championships offered a lot of the same excitement served up by the other tennis events of the U.S. Open plus some extra spins. Each time a player hit a shot, he or she had to quickly move into position for the next shot. Since the player couldn’t readily shuffle side-to-side because that’s not how wheelchairs in the current time-space continuum work, the player had to instead spin the wheelchair around in a strikingly fluid manner that’s part Super Bowl wide receiver and part Dancing with the Stars. Again, the player had to do all of this with his or her upper body. This “chair work,” which Kunieda described as, “my weapon” is a big part of wheelchair tennis and can be mesmerizing to watch when a champion does it so elegantly. de Groot did say, “I don’t see myself as talented. I just really enjoy the hard work,” but let’s be realistic, very few people in the world could get a wheelchair to move like de Groot and Kunieda can. Jason Harnett, the Director of Wheelchair Tennis for the USTA and the Head Coach for Team USA, called this movement “Circular mobility. Once you hit the ball, you use circular patterns to put yourself in the right position.”
A Historic Expansion of Wheelchair Tennis
The 2022 U.S. Open also featured the largest ever wheelchair player field in Grand Slam history. Both the men’s and women’s singles fields doubled from eight from last year to 16 this year. Each of the doubles fields expanded to eight teams as well. Plus, the 2022 tournament had junior wheelchair events for the first time. Kunieda remarked that the expansion was “good for promotion of the sport,” and de Groot felt that the “the U.S. Open feels even more like an actual tournament [with the expanded field.]” She also indicated that “it is always great to play in the Louis Armstrong stadium [one of the two main courts at the U.S. Open.] It is such a nice time to be in wheelchair tennis. By letting us play on center court, tournaments are taking us more seriously.”
The Return of the GOAT, Esther Vergeer
The runs by de Groot and Kunieda and the expanded fields weren’t the only things that made this year’s U.S. Open wheelchair championships historic. A number of the sport’s luminaries and pioneers were on the grounds at Flushing Meadows during this year’s tournament. One of them was the GOAT of GOATs, Esther Vergeer, who’s been called the Roger Federer of wheelchair tennis. Or perhaps a way to compliment Federer would be calling him the Esther Vergeer of men’s able-bodied tennis. When Vergeer retired from professional competition in 2013, Federer said that he “will never be able to relate to [Vergeer’s level of dominance],” as can be seen in the following video:
When a person who’s been frequently called a GOAT like Federer can’t relate to your level of dominance, you know you’ve been a super-GOAT. Or an ultra-GOAT. Or a GO-GOAT as in Greatest of Greatest of All-Time. Vergeer dominated her sport to a ridiculous degree. She went undefeated in women’s singles matches for a 10-year span, winning 120 tournaments and 470 matches, while not losing a single game in 95 matches. During that time, she managed a 120-match, 26-month streak of not dropping even a single set. No matter how talented you are. No matter how much above the competition you may be. You figure that you’ll have off-days here and there while every opponent you encounter will be super motivated to upset you with a nothing to lose attitude. But, despite all this, Vergeer didn’t slip up a single time during a decade.
When speaking to Vergeer, I tried to get some sense of what it might feel like to maintain that level of dominance for that long. But as a mere mortal whose longest streaks have been more in the eating chocolate realm, it was hard for me to relate. She explained, “It felt so good being in so much control during the winning streak. I felt powerful and like I could do whatever I wanted to do, not only on the court.” In dominating the sport, Vergeer has helped elevate the sport in many ways. For example, de Groot relayed that watching Vergeer in Holland inspired her and many other players.
Vergreer talked about how the sport has changed since her playing days. “When I was playing, Grand slams were starting to integrate wheelchair tennis, first as exhibitions and then as real Grand Slams. There was hesitation at first such as will it mess up the players lounge by making it too crowded.” But all that has changed. Vergreer mentioned how the prize money has jumped up from “maybe $10,000 to now in maybe the $60k level.”
The Evolution of the Sport
Another wheelchair luminary and pioneer on hand at this year’s U.S. Open was Brad Parks, a 2010 inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. After a 1976 skiing accident left him paralyzed from the hips down, Parks did the exact opposite of wallow. Along with wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnebraker, he basically helped start the sport of wheelchair tennis. It certainly wasn’t smooth sailing. In fact, Parks told me how early on in the early 1980’s, “one of the most powerful persons in wheelchair sport told me ‘you are wasting your time with wheelchair tennis because you can’t move side-to-side.’ Telling a 21-year-old kid this was deflating.” Fortunately for the sport and many other athletes, Parks didn’t give up and ended doing the opposite. He created the organization that got things started, eventually passing the mantle to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and U.S. Tennis Association (USTA).
A lot has changed since Parks first pioneered the sport. Parks talked about how “Jeff started making lightweight wheelchairs unlike the airport-type chairs that was were used before.” Since then the wheelchairs have really evolved. One thing that has changed has been the camber of the wheels. The camber is the angle of the wheels relative to the ground with zero camber meaning that the wheels are completely perpendicular to the ground. While the original wheels had only a few degrees of camber, current wheelchairs being used in competition have about a 20 degree camber. “This makes the base of the wheelchair so wide,” Harnett explained. “This along with the anti-tip wheel in the back makes allows the movement of the chair to be more quick and agile. It really allows the athletes to train harder and be more aggressive.” Both Harnett and Parks described how the sport over the years has adapted technology from other sports such as strapping from snowboarding and various types of padding.
The Growth of the U.S. Program and Dana Mathewson
Of course, you can have all the talent in the world but only get so far without help. The path of American wheelchair tennis star Dana Mathewson has shown how stronger national programs can take the sport to another level. de Groot mentioned, “being lucky to have a world champion [Vergeer] in Holland,” and the benefits of a “having tight and strong team.” Mathewson, who was born and raised in San Diego and suffered a spinal cord injury at age of 10, did earn a scholarship to the University of Arizona to play tennis. But in her words, she “took hiatus from the sport after feeling burned out.” She did “get the itch again” and then qualify for the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016. But it wasn’t until she “moved to Orlando, right before pandemic, where the national training is” that she really begin fulfilling her tremendous athletic potential. “Before moving to Orlando, I had done a lot of training on my own,” Mathewson recalled. “I didn’t really have a coach. It was like doing geometry without learning algebra. At the national center, they broke down my game and built it up again. I went through a regimented gym program and built up my mental skills. This changed me as an athlete into a much better one, one who is a lot more fit.”
This included working closely with Harnett. While she had “just wanted to qualify for the Rio games and ended up winning one round, I went to to the Tokyo Games with a different mindset and ended up getting to the quarterfinals.” Mathewson talked of how she was “always a good ball striker but didn’t see the court. I see it more as a chessboard now. My tennis IQ has gotten a lot higher. I am literally learning how to hit different shots.”
Indeed, the level of mental and physical fitness needed to compete in wheelchair tennis at the highest level is next level stuff. There’s a lot to coordinate at once including your body, a chair that weighs about 20 pounds, and your racquet, again all primarily with the upper body. Mathewson talked about “constantly being in motion”, “having to be quick and nimble”, “positioning yourself to deal with high bouncing balls”, and “having to generate a lot of power using fewer muscle groups.”
When you watch Mathewson, de Groot, and Kunieda play there’s a lot of “how did he or she do that,” sort of like when you’ve watched Lionel Messi, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, LeBron James, Vivianne Miedema, Roger Federer, or Serena Williams compete in their respective sports. This is quite different from some of the baseline stereotypes of wheelchair tennis floating out there largely generated by people who haven’t actually seen the wheelchair tennis matches at the U.S. Open and other Grand Slams. And isn’t that where stereotypes usually arise, from people who don’t take the time to really figure out the actual truth? So before you draw any conclusions you may want to see some of these world class athletes play. It may bounce away some of your preconceived notions.