“Once you cross the net post I’ll count four. One! Two! Three!”
Tennis pro Shirley Mendoza is supervising a drill called Champs and Chumps. The rules for wheelchair tennis are exactly the same for players in chairs and players on foot, except for one thing: able-bodied players get one bounce, wheelchair players get two.
“That’s the only rule. They get two bounces. But I’d say 85 percent of the time they hit it on one. It’s pretty amazing. Next to you!”
Mendoza’s 32. She’s played tennis for more than 25 years. She’s been coaching for 10 of them. But it was just two years ago that she started teaching tennis to people in wheelchairs, something she never imagined she’d do. The idea came to her when she drove past the West Gray Adaptive Recreation Center in Montrose which caters to people with physical disabilities. Her passion for the sport made it unbearable for her to see the center’s perfectly good tennis courts sit unused day after day.
“I’ve never taught adaptive wheelchair sports in my life, but I just thought, ‘Okay it’s still the game, same game, it’s still a tennis ball, it’s still a racket.’ So I thought, ‘Well, this would be one way to challenge my coaching skills.’ So I kind of did it for the challenge and I did it just out of the principle of seeing these courts unused.”
Mendoza has extensive experience teaching able-bodied tennis. But the only preparation she had for coaching wheelchair-bound players was watching a 40-minute DVD. She took the plunge by offering her first wheelchair class in the summer of 2009. And at first no one came. So she waited, alone, in the oppressive Houston heat. Six weeks passed.
“And so I just thought, ‘Well, if I just am stubborn enough and show up enough somebody’s going to notice.’ And they did!”
Jim Jones joined the clinic about a year ago. And right now he’s trying to score a point against the Champs.
(Sounds of Jones scoring a point)
Jones has been in a wheelchair since 1985. He played tennis as an able-bodied high school student and says the hardest part of making the transition from playing on his feet to playing in his chair was maneuvering around the court.
“I could still swing, but I couldn’t get to the ball. I can hit pretty good, but I have to remember to keep my chair moving. That’s the key to playing tennis in a wheelchair is to always keep your chair moving to keep the momentum going.”
Eric Lutz is another player in Mendoza’s Tuesday night clinic. He says being able to compete again gives him back something he feared he’d lost forever.
“It’s a sense of activity and freedom that I just forgot what it was like. From a psychological perspective, just having the chance of being competitive, it’s. . . you can’t replace that.”
Now that Mendoza has more students, she’s eager to get more of them competing in wheelchair tennis tournaments.
“First it was just to lure them in and let them know that it’s fun. And then the next step is to get them to play competitively, locally, around Houston.”
From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Wendy Siegle.
Photo courtesy of HPARD.