U.S. Coach Helps to Bring Wheelchair Tennis to Developing Nations
As wheelchair tennis grows in popularity and relevance in American sports, steps are being taken to introduce the sport in developing nations, where other wheelchair sports are already on the scene.
For nearly two weeks this past summer, wheelchair tennis coach Dan James visited Tanzania on behalf of the International Tennis Federation’s Silver Fund, a program that, in cooperation with the Johan Cruyff Foundation (cruyff-foundation.org), establishes wheelchair tennis projects in countries otherwise unable to embrace it. There, he introduced the sport to more than 75 coaches and players at sites in the cities of Dar Es Salaam, Moshi, Iringa, and on the island of Zanzibar.
“We truly were bringing some information to wheelchair (athletes) and coaches that they just haven’t seen before,” says James, who is the USTA’s wheelchair tennis national manager. The training James provided included the basics of wheelchair tennis, including mobility, stroke production and strategy.
According to Mark Bullock, wheelchair tennis development officer for the ITF, countries must show commitment to developing a wheelchair tennis program to be eligible for assistance from the Silver Fund. Once a country expresses interest or is approached by the ITF, Bullock visits the country for a few days to meet with committees dedicated to growing the sport. Since 2002, the Silver Fund has supported programs in Africa, Asia, and South America by sending in experts like James.
The sites in Tanzania where he trained the players and coaches, James says, were “challenging,” and included a dirt surface and a cement slab with chalk lines to mark court boundaries. “The quality of courts we played on would be considered incredibly sub-par in the U.S.,” he says.
Despite conditions, however, the participants’ response was passionate. “It was very clear that to commit to and develop in a new sport was exciting to them,” says James. Each of the four sites that James visited has committed to continuing wheelchair tennis programming and mapped out a three-year plan for the development and growth of the sport. In addition, the Tanzanian Paralympic Committee has plans to bring wheelchair tennis to other cities in the country.
Along the way, the Silver Fund will assist in providing necessary equipment and guidance as it works with the country of Tanzania for at least the next two years. “The people of Tanzania have a great start because of the ITF and Cruyff Foundation,” says James, who hopes to take part in return visits to the country.
According to Bullock, other Silver Fund countries have seen increased numbers of wheelchair tennis players, with some going on to compete in the international NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour.
While in Africa, James also helped introduce the sport to both able-bodied and disabled players in Nairobi, Kenya. He joined Dr. Elizabeth Odera, the organizer of sports programming for more than 6,000 children in the area, whom James met at the annual Professional Tennis Registry Symposium in February.
While at Sadili Oval, Odera’s facility in Nairobi, James taught wheelchair tennis to the Kenyan wheelchair basketball team, and also worked with some of the country’s top-ranked able-bodied junior tennis players.
James’ trip to Kenya also included emotional and eye-opening visits to Kibera, an impoverished neighborhood of Nairobi. “I’ve never in my life seen anything like it,” says James. “Your initial reaction is a little bit of shock, because it’s so vastly different. The financial disparity between our two countries is enormous.”
Natives of the area followed James, Odera and former PTR Director of Development Geoff Norton wherever they went, as the three carried on Sadili Oval’s mission of introducing sport and education to disadvantaged youth. “It very much helped me to understand life in Kibera and Kenya, to go in and see it, touch it, feel it,” says James.
“Growing tennis is a good thing,” says James. “Growing wheelchair tennis, for us, is essential. And in terms of a sport being well-rounded, taking it to all parts of the world is advantageous.”
For more information on the ITF and its projects and programs, visit itftennis.com.
See all articles by Kristen Daley
About the Author
Kristen Daley is a contributing editor for RSI magazine.