Brad Parks: Creating the Sport of Wheelchair Tennis
When his life took a completely unexpected bounce, Brad Parks responded the way any good tennis player would. He changed directions. The year was 1976 and Parks, a college freshman in Utah (and a casual tennis player), was participating in an amateur freestyle skiing competition when he broke his back. It was the last time he would ever walk.
“I was sitting in the hospital, thinking, what am I going to do now?” Parks says. “I knew I had to make the best of the situation. I started thinking, I wonder if you can play tennis in a wheelchair?”
Just weeks after being released from the rehab hospital, Parks attended a picnic with his family. “They were all playing tennis and I wanted to play, so they handed me a racquet.” That was the moment Parks became not only involved in, but also key to, the development of the sport of wheelchair tennis.
In 1976, the Americans With Disabilities Act wasn’t even on the table. Wheelchair-accessible restrooms and parking spaces weren’t commonplace. Obstacles were all around. At one point, Parks and his father tried to play golf together, but were turned away. The course manager was afraid Parks’ wheelchair would damage the turf.
Sanctioned wheelchair sports were limited as well: basketball and track and field were the only offerings. Undeterred, Parks began playing tennis regularly. He developed techniques and rules for wheelchair play, including the two-bounce rule. In 1977, Parks held his first wheelchair tennis tournament. He started the National Foundation for Wheelchair Tennis, but it wasn’t easy to get respect.
“In 1980, I was at an event where we’d just done a demo of wheelchair tennis. I was at a banquet, and in front of me was a guy who was working with wheelchair basketball, and he said, ‘Brad, you’re wasting your time. Wheelchair tennis isn’t a viable sport. Tennis is all about side-to-side motion on the court, and you can’t do that in a wheelchair.”
But Parks continued to press against the barriers. He toured cities, setting up demonstrations in parking lots, parks and gymnasiums. He spoke at rehab facilities and veteran’s hospitals. He spoke to children who used wheelchairs and encouraged them to go out and play. Before he left each city, he’d teach an able-bodied tennis pro the fundamentals of wheelchair tennis. And he started making things happen.
“I don’t think you can even begin to measure what he did,” says Dan James, Paralympics coach and national manager of Wheelchair Tennis for the USTA. “His personal fortitude in getting it in front of organizers made the sport grow. He absolutely spearheaded wheelchair tennis as a viable sport.”
In 1988, the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation was formed, with Parks as its president. In 1998, IWTF was absorbed into the International Tennis Federation, the same time the USTA assumed responsibility for wheelchair tennis in the U.S. from the National Foundation for Wheelchair Tennis.
Parks also started the first international wheelchair tennis event, the US Open, held in California. He continued as its tournament chairman for almost 20 years. Today, the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour includes more than 150 tournaments in over 40 countries, and offers more than $1.5 million in prize money. In 1985, the World Team Cup was played for the first time. Today, it is a team event in the Fed Cup/Davis Cup style, is offered by 52 nations, and includes men, women, quadriplegic, and junior competitions.
Ellen DeLange, the ITF’s current Wheelchair Tennis Manager, says the explosive growth has been stunning. “Brad and I would have both laughed if someone would have told us that in 20 years, the sport would be played at the Grand Slams, would have professional players making a living out of it and would include worldwide tournaments with prize money.”
This past July, Parks was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He’s happy to see the sport getting the recognition it deserves, and proudest of the people who, following injury, found new courage and self-confidence through wheelchair tennis.
And not long ago, Parks saw his old colleague who had tried so hard to dissuade him from his efforts to formalize wheelchair tennis. “The guy came up to me and said, ‘Brad, I was wrong,’” Parks says, laughing. “That was great.”
“Pioneers in Tennis,” an occasional column in RSI, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest?
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.