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How wheelchair tennis provides a successful model for adaptive sports

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adaptive sports, recreational
or competitive sports played by people with disabilities, are growing in popularity, as
are the skill levels of the athletes. One of the established growing sports is wheelchair
tennis. William Brangham went to the U.S. Open in
New York to talk with some of the top players. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Twenty-eight-year-old Dana
Mathewson hits hard. She’s the number one American women’s wheelchair
tennis player, competing at the world’s top tournaments, including this, her third U.S.
Open. Mathewson started as a soccer player, but,
at age 10, she contracted a rare neurological disease. In a matter of minutes, she went from running
on the field to being paralyzed from the waist down. During this difficult time, her mom, who’s
a doctor, encouraged her to try tennis. DANA MATHEWSON, Professional Wheelchair Tennis
Player: When I heard about adaptive sports, I didn’t think that they would be anything
like what you saw today. I didn’t think they would be competitive. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Flash-forward 19 years. Mathewson has represented the U.S. in World
Cup team tennis nine times. This September, playing for Team USA, she
won a gold medal in doubles and a bronze in singles at the Pan-American Games in Peru. Is it just as fierce? DANA MATHEWSON: Definitely. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Are you guys just as rough
on each other and just as brutal? DANA MATHEWSON: Definitely. When you have a disability or you have to
come back from certain hardships, and then to also play a sport, that’s a type of really
resilient person. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That type of resilience
is shown in other adaptive pro sports, like wheelchair basketball, wheelchair racing and
skiing, all growing in popularity. JASON HARNETT, Head Coach, U.S. Paralympic
Team: We really feel like that respect has arrived. You’re seeing the very, very best skill level
I would equate to the able-bodied side. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jason Harnett is the U.S.
Tennis Association’s head coach for the Paralympic team. He’s known Mathewson since she first picked
up a racquet. The rules for wheelchair tennis are the same
as for able-bodied tennis, with one exception: You get two bounces, if players need the additional
time to get to the ball. Here at the U.S. Open, the world’s top eight
men and top eight women were competing, as were the best four quadriplegic players those
who have at least three extremities affected by a permanent disability. They compete in a separate competition. JASON HARNETT: If you think about them using
the chair, if I have to move to my left or my right, I actually have to turn the chair
and push forward. There is no sidestep out. There is no cross-step. JOANNE WALLEN, Director, U.S. Open Wheelchair
Tournament: It’s a big stage. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jo Wallen directs the wheelchair
tournament at the U.S. Open. And she says players have to hit the same
tough shots, but they also have to quickly steer their chair, often making figure eights,
so they can track the ball and be ready for the return shot. JOANNE WALLEN: It’s the maneuvering the chair
that messes up the able-bodied person. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some big names in able-bodied
tennis, like Novak Djokovic and Frances Tiafoe, have tried playing from a chair, and discovered
just how hard it is. GUSTAVO FERNANDEZ, Professional Wheelchair
Tennis Player: I always dreamed to be a professional sports player. It was tennis, what I was meant to do. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Argentinean Gustavo Fernandez
is the number one ranked wheelchair tennis player in the world. In 2019, he’s won the Australian Open, the
French Open and Wimbledon. When we caught up with him at the U.S. Open,
he was going for his final of the Grand Slams. Fernandez has been in a wheelchair since he
was a year-old as a result of a spinal cord injury. GUSTAVO FERNANDEZ: I love to compete. And competition, it means everything to me. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He said he feels a need
to not only grow as a competitor, but to grow this sport, in part to change perceptions. GUSTAVO FERNANDEZ: Sometimes, the ignorance
makes you not see what it really is. And once you learn about it, you will see
that it’s a professional sport with high-quality tennis. And I think, in that way, it will grow by
itself. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Fernandez’s matches are
intense. MAN: Nice shot by Fernandez. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On this day, he blew a tire
on the hot court. MAN: There’s the wheelchair repair technician. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Enter Mike Zangari. He’s a pioneer who played wheelchair tennis
himself for 35 years and basketball before that. He’s ready, courtside, to repair these lightweight,
high-end titanium chairs that can run into the thousands of dollars. MIKE ZANGARI, Chief Wheelchair Technician,
U.S. Open: If you take your conventional hospital chair or the ones you see in the airport or
the ones I got my start in, I would relate them to being a Hummer. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A Hummer? MIKE ZANGARI: Big, clunky. Now, comparing to these chairs, that’s what
you have out there. You have Lamborghinis. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Wheelchair tennis is slowly
gaining traction. There are grassroots levels up to professional
ranks, and the sport is represented at all four Grand Slam events around the world. But it’s not without its challenges: building
a fan base, getting more sponsors, even offering higher prize money. Wheelchair Grand Slam winners take home just
over $33,000, compared to the millions for the able-bodied winners. Certain players, like six-time U.S. Open singles
champion and world number two Shingo Kunieda of Japan, have a literal following. After this recent doubles win with Gustavo
Fernandez, fans flocked to him. But they’re nowhere near enough to fill the
cavernous stadium. Officials are also hoping the sport will gain
more popularity as top competitors continue their U.S. Open with a much larger pool of
players, like here in Saint Louis. These more intimate venues help build community. The players ate together, pumped up their
own tires, helped each other out, and generally celebrated each other’s achievements. Fernandez and Mathewson were part of that,
while remaining laser-focused on their own goals. In New York, I asked them, what drives them? DANA MATHEWSON: The more and more that I get
exposed to different things, the more that I realize what I can do with this disability
and the things that it’s afforded my life, the more I actually feel really grateful for
it, which is kind a weird thing to say. A lot of people… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Grateful? DANA MATHEWSON: Yes, a lot of people wouldn’t
really look at a disability and say that it’s a great thing. I think that’s one of the more unfortunate
attitudes that people have about disability, that, if someone can’t walk, their life must
suck. This disability has allowed me to represent
my country. I get to travel the world for a living. I get to play a sport for a living. GUSTAVO FERNANDEZ: I like really much what
I do, and I respect it and I think I’m quite good at it, because I have been — I have
worked for it. So if there’s 10 people, 10,000, one billion
people watching it, for me, it will mean the same. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tennis’ year seemingly never
stops. Players are now competing in Europe, before
heading to the season-ender in Orlando. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham
in Flushing Meadows, New York.

David Frank