Tennis
Aishwarya Kumar, ESPN.com 46d

World's best wheelchair tennis players converge for US Open

Tennis

NEW YORK -- While most eyes have been on the men's and women's singles this week at the US Open, another competition is underway at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center: the US Open Wheelchair Competition.

Wheelchair tennis players from around the world started their tournament Thursday and will continue through Sunday in six divisions -- men's singles, men's doubles, women's singles, women's doubles, quad singles and quad doubles -- with $200,000 prizes awaiting the champions.

"These athletes have been through so many difficulties in their lives, but they take it in their stride and work hard every day to be the best in their field. It is really inspiring," said Jason Harnett, USTA national manager of wheelchair tennis.

Here are the stories of some of the event's top players.

Bryan Barten

Age: 43
Residence: Tucson, Arizona
Began WCT: Age 22
Career-best rankings (quads): No. 5 singles; No. 4 doubles

Barten was 22 when a car accident left him paralyzed. He took up wheelchair tennis and has competed in two Paralympic Games -- London and Rio. With partner David Wagner, he has won six quad doubles titles this year. One of the biggest highlights of his career was winning the quad singles title at the 2014 Jana Hunsaker Memorial wheelchair tennis tournament -- an ITF event held annually at the National Tennis Center. This will be Barten's first US Open, after he received a wild-card entry.

Barten also coaches wheelchair tennis at the University of Arizona.

"When Dana Mathewson was playing for Arizona, Barten coached her, giving her advice as a player and a coach," Harnett said.


Diede de Groot

Age: 20
Residence: Utrecht, Netherlands
Began WCT: Age 7
Career-best rankings: No. 2 singles; No. 2 doubles

This will be de Groot's first US Open appearance, and she is youngest women in the tournament. De Groot, who was born with her right leg shorter than the left, shot to fame in Netherlands when she ended 2016 with 18 finals appearances and a silver medal in doubles at the Rio Paralympics. She made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open this year and reached the final, and then won her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon.

She came across wheelchair tennis at age 7 and fell in love with it instantly. Her long-term goal is to be the best wheelchair tennis player in the world.


Gustavo Fernandez

Age: 23
Residence: Rio Tercero, Argentina
Began WCT: Age 6
Career-best rankings: No. 1 singles; No. 5 doubles

Fernandez fell from a chair as an infant, damaging his spinal cord, and has been in a wheelchair most of his life. Because of balance issues, he grips his wheelchair every time he takes a shot. He enters the US Open as the world's No. 1-ranked singles wheelchair player, with seven titles this year.

Fernandez comes from a family of athletes -- his father was a basketball player in Argentina and his brother played basketball for Temple University. His major breakthrough came in 2011 when he won the singles gold at the Parapan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. He represented Argentina at the London and Rio Paralympics and reached the singles quarterfinals both times.

"He's had a tragic life, and every shot he takes requires effort, but he makes it seem so easy, so beautiful," Harnett said.


Yui Kamiji

Age: 23
Residence: Akashi, Japan
Began WCT: Age 11
Career-best rankings: No. 1 in singles; No. 1 in doubles

Kamiji, who was born with spina bifida, began playing wheelchair tennis at age 11 and turned pro at 19. She won both the singles and doubles titles at the US Open in 2014. Along with partner Jordanne Whiley, Kamiji won all four Grand Slam doubles titles that year. She also won the singles bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics last year and was the Australian Open and French Open singles champion this year.

"She's the sweetest kid in the world when you meet her, but ... she wants to kill you on the court," Harnett said.


Shingo Kunieda

Age: 33
Residence: Chiba, Japan
Began WCT: Age 11
Career-best rankings: No. 1 singles; No. 1 doubles.

Kunieda was 9 when he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his spine. Surgery to remove the tumor left him paralyzed in the lower part of his body. He was an athletic kid growing up and loved playing recreational wheelchair tennis so much that he took it up seriously. Within two years, he broke into the top 20 and went on to win 20 Grand Slam singles titles, including six at the US Open. His celebrated career also includes three Paralympic Games gold medals. Another highlight was a 106-match winning streak from November 2007 to November 2010.

"He is probably the greatest player of all time to play wheelchair tennis," Harnett said.


Dana Mathewson

Age: 27
Residence: San Diego
Began WCT: Age 13
Career-best rankings: No. 10 singles; No. 7 doubles

With a wild-card entry, this will be Mathewson's first US Open. When she was 13, Mathewson was paralyzed after contracting a neurological disease -- transverse myelitis -- caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. She was a soccer player before, and the urge to play sports never left her. She tried her hand at wheelchair basketball but fell in love with tennis.

Soon, she had signed up for the USTA's junior tennis camp and went on to play wheelchair tennis for the University of Arizona, where she earned a degree in speech, language and hearing sciences. Mathewson represented the U.S. at the Rio Paralympics and is a seven-time World Cup competitor. She reached career-high rankings of No. 10 in singles and No. 7 in doubles earlier this year. Come this fall, she is moving to London to pursue a PhD in audiology.

"Dana is dating another wheelchair athlete, Alfie Hewett, from the U.K., and they learn a lot from each other outside of tennis, like being patient and kind. It's nice to see that," Harnett said.


Gordon Reid

Age: 25
Residence: Glasgow, Scotland
Began WCT: Age 13
Career-best rankings: No. 1 in singles; No. 1 in doubles

Reid was an able-bodied junior tennis player until 2005, when he contracted transverse myelitis and lost the use of his legs. But his passion for tennis remained. He went on to become one of the greatest British wheelchair players of all time. He won his first Grand Slam wheelchair singles title in 2016 at the Australian Open and won at Wimbledon the same year. He also has won six Grand Slam doubles titles and was the singles gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

"Andy Murray won the gold in singles and Gordon Reid won the gold in wheelchair tennis -- how incredible that two men from Scotland achieve this in one Olympics?" Harnett said.

Reid also plays wheelchair basketball.


David Wagner

Age: 43
Residence: Hillsboro, Oregon
Began WCT: 25
Career-best rankings (quads): No. 1 singles; No. 1 doubles

When he was 25, Wagner was throwing a Frisbee with his friends on the beach in Southern California when an unruly wave caught his feet and spun him around. He landed face first, injuring his spinal cord leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He retained only 30 percent feelings in his hands. As part of his rehabilitation, he started playing table tennis, and he eventually moved on to wheelchair tennis.

He has gone on to compete in four Paralympic Games and has won eight medals, including three golds. He has also won the US Open quad singles title twice and the Australian Open quad singles title three times. When Wagner is not playing tennis, he gives motivational speeches to other athletes.

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