If there is one thing wheelchair tennis players seem to have in common its resilience. Self-pity is not something they can afford to entertain. They can’t all have been born that way and yet zest for life is a theme that runs through all of them.
Top quad player David Wagner said that he has a photo of himself at home in Chula Vista, California with a big grin on his face - seven days after he broke his neck in a surfing accident at the age of 20, paralysing himself.
The American had huge support from his family and friends and, as he admits, not everyone has that. But then nor does everyone have his determination and desire to get on with his life. Or to be the best they can be.
“I know nothing’s perfect but I want to be perfect,” he said even before qualifying once again for the quad final at the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters, an event he has won seven times. He meets Lucas Sithole, of South Africa, at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Sunday.
“I guess I was fortunate, I never had that moment when I could have turned to drugs or alcohol or anything to just cope with it,” he said. “I never got bitter, I never got so down, but I had really strong family and friends support.
“My friends and family treated me exactly the same, so if we were going to a movie they were like ‘bring your wallet dude because you’re paying’. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, you’re broken, let me take care of you. You’re still the same David Wagner that I grew up with, you’re still my brother, you’re still my son, I’m going to treat you exactly the same’ and that made a huge difference in my life, not to be seen as this fragile individual who’s broken or not the same person.
“I had the kind of attitude of ‘okay, what’s next?’ This is the next part of my life and what do I do now? For everyone it’s different, but for me I never had that truly down, negative part. That doesn’t mean it was easy, you still had a hard time, you learned new things, you learned about your body, learned how to do things as a disabled individual.”
Strangely enough, Wagner had taken up tennis just 10 months before his accident on a beach in California and fallen in love with it. He had always been very active, doing water skiing, surfing and snowboarding.
“I got tossed by a wave and landed wrongly on my neck, breaking it at the C6 level, instantly paralysing me as a quadriplegic,” he said.
It was another four years before he found wheelchair tennis. His girlfriend at the time was a keen tennis fan and urged him to give it a try.
“I said sure, I’ll give it a go. I played in an everyday chair. I couldn’t even hold the racket because of my hand being paralysed. Afterwards I remember saying, ‘there is no way a quadriplegic plays wheelchair tennis’.”
And then he went to a wheelchair tennis camp in Portland, Oregon and his life was never the same again, thanks to the help he received there from three leading figures in US wheelchair tennis – Randy Snow, Rick Draney and Dan James. He finished a teaching degree so he had something to fall back on, but the tennis just took off.
Within a few years he was dominating the game and has continued to do so for the last 12 years. He is a seven-time year-end world No. 1. Now, at the age of 41, he has to be a little less demanding of a body that has been “put through the wringer a bit”.
“I can’t stress enough how it’s been a life-changing sport for me. I would love anyone to have that opportunity, regardless of being in a chair or not. Find something you love, devote your life to it and great things will happen.”
Wagner often talks about his ‘good fortune’ in life. He may be US tennis’s most decorated player in Olympic/Paralympic terms with three golds, two silvers and a bronze but it hasn’t made him either rich or famous. But then he never went into the sport with either of those goals. His aim each year, financially speaking, is just to break even.
Well-meaning sportsmen, particularly those who have made good monetarily, talk about wanting to give something back to the game. All that Wagner has taken out of it is joy – old Corinthian values indeed. For the past four years he’s been running a clinic in Portland, Oregon with the Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association for children aged five to 16.
“One of the biggest problems we have with them is the fear of being a disabled child, the fear of trying something new, giving it a go. And just to say, ‘Hey, you might not be overly successful on day one, but are you having fun, are you smiling, are you laughing, are you pushing your chair and doing something you’ve never done before?’ If you can get them to that point you’ve accomplished a lot.
“It’s more than just hitting a ball over the net, hitting a winner past somebody. It’s about showing them that you as a disabled individual aren’t just the official or the line-keeper or the scorekeeper. You can actually be an athlete. And once the light bulb goes off in their head and you see that moment – ‘wow, I can be an athlete’ – it’s such a great feeling to witness that, especially with kids, but adults, too.”
Wagner would love to see wheelchair tennis receive a higher profile, even if it’s for the generation following him, but realises only too well that that’s difficult, if not nigh on impossible.
“No-one wants to be disabled,” he said. “It’s not like you watch us play tennis and say ‘Man, I can’t wait until I lose my leg and I get to sit in a wheelchair and play wheelchair tennis’. You’re impressed, and it’s an inspiring and amazing thing, but it’s still...disability is a little risqué.
“Is it something you want to put out into the forefront and really make that be known? You hope that someday it gets to that level, but if you can showcase it in a way that ‘Hey, if this were to happen to you, heaven forbid, or if you know someone that this has happened to', this is one way for them to deal with their loss.”