Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wheelie tough to master

Able-bodied player finds new tennis challenge

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Whoever says wheelchair tennis is harder than it looks doesn't know what they're talking about.

That's because it's practically impossible -- at least for this able-bodied tennis player.

The wheelchair version requires upper-arm strength and co-ordination to manoeuvre a sports wheelchair in all directions at varying speeds so you arrive at the ball at the right time, plus all the racquet skills to produce the optimal amount of power and spin when you hit your shot.

Mobility is crucial in this sport because if you can't move your chair around the court, it doesn't matter if you have Rafael Nadal's ground strokes, you won't get your racquet on the ball.

Wheelchair tennis has been played for decades in Manitoba and around the world but it wasn't until this week in the province that a sanctioned tournament -- the Deer Lodge Classic -- included a wheelchair event.

Sean Grassie, head pro and tournament director at Deer Lodge Tennis Club, said it only made sense to combine the two versions of the same sport. There is a round-robin singles draw throughout the week and a doubles exhibition will be played on Sunday before the men's able-bodied singles final.

"We're going to try to showcase the wheelchair events when it's busy at the club when people are around to watch. They're looking forward to it," he said.

Two of the four participants in the men's wheelchair singles, Jason Betker and Sam Unrau, agreed to give me a lesson in their sport. (They're also paired up as one of the two men's teams in the wheelchair doubles.)

Their first tip was to always be moving. It's very difficult to stop and start in a wheelchair but changing direction or speeds can be done relatively easily while in motion.

Second, you've got to learn to explode out of the blocks when starting a point and propel yourself forward while holding on to your racquet in your dominant hand.

Betker, who suffered a spinal cord injury 14 years ago while on a dirt bike, was introduced to the sport last year by some sledge hockey teammates. He thinks it's great to have the wheelchair event alongside the able-bodied ones.

"It gives awareness to everybody that people in chairs can get out and enjoy themselves and do the same activities that able-bodied people do," he said.

Unrau, who was born with spina bifida and is missing part of his spine, agreed. He got into wheelchair tennis when he was 10 and was a quick learner. He earned a spot on Team Manitoba at the 2007 and 2011 Western Canada Summer Games.

"We've been able to grow the sport of wheelchair tennis to the point where we can participate in events like the Deer Lodge Classic. It's awesome," he said.

Their final tip applies to any sport, wheelchair or able-bodied.

"Practise, practise, practise," Unrau said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2014 C6

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