I have taught tennis to people of all ages, from five-to-85-years-old, maybe even older, and one of my specialties is teaching wheelchair tennis. I am also Tournament Director for the annual Jana Hunsaker Wheelchair Tennis Tournament held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for 20 years, and would like to share with you stories of three courageous people who played tennis, where tennis became a form of medicine.
A college student who played tennis for his school had a tragic accident and became paralyzed where he ended up in a wheelchair for life. He is quadriplegic, which identifies players with limited mobility, power and strength in at least three limbs. His coach at the time wanted him to continue playing tennis and introduced him to wheelchair tennis. He came to class in a motorized chair and was, understandably, quite distant. He explained he was right-handed and had very little mobility, but could grip with his left. I told him that he needs to get in a manual chair and tape his right hand to his racquet. He played each week and eventually he competed in the annual Jana Hunsaker Wheelchair Tennis Tournament, and he couldn’t believe that he was actually competing again. That was the first time I had seen him smile!
A woman was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis which is defined as chronic and a progressive disease which leads to damaging nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Since she learned about this, her world started to spiral down. She told me she had been an athlete all her life and to think now that she was wheelchair-bound, she totally lost her will to live. When she discovered she could play tennis in a wheelchair, her outlook became bright. Her first day in class, she was elated because she was sweating and couldn’t believe she was active again and playing a sport. She also came out each week to play and competed in my tournament. I had her playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium where she had a team of friends and relatives come watch her play. She told me that was the most memorable moment in her life and cried with joy.
A player in his 20s was paralyzed from a skiing accident. He did not think there was anything left to do when it came to sports and being active. When he discovered wheelchair tennis, he became obsessed with it and told me that he was determined to be a world class ITF open player and set that as his goal.
Out of all of my students that I have encountered, there are numerous stories that have crossed my path on how tennis is almost like a source of medicine. Although tennis plays a significant recreational activity in individuals with disabilities, tennis is a sport that any person can enjoy. It can be a placebo for that adult who had a horrible day at work, a depressant for a teen with anxiety, and therapy for those who are wretched. Over years of observation, tennis has been found to be a source of entertainment and relief.
Based on studies, prior knowledge, my personal experience, research, and actual people I’ve dealt with, tennis is not only a sport, but also a drug that I would highly recommend. As an example, if one of my students needed to unleash his or her anxiety, it could easily be done by whacking a tennis ball as well as having a fantastic lesson. Their stress slowly starts to seep out in sweat and eventually melt into a restful night’s sleep at the end of the day. It can be for that five-year-old who is having the time of her life playing “fruit salad”. Wait a minute, what kind of stress would a five-year old carry? It could be a medicine for that child’s parent who just had a stressful day. Watching her child having a great time just helps relieve stress. It can be for the teen that has received a grade unsatisfactory to their standards and took a lesson on how to hit a backhand slice. They try and try until finally, they hit a razor blade slice and exclaims, “Coach, did you see that!?”
It’s also for that senior, who instead of channel flipping at home watching Jeopardy thinking that this would exercise the mind, goes out and plays tennis. Any individual would feel active with tennis and would have a phenomenal time socializing with their friends and family.
Overall, tennis is a sport that could be utilized as a sport, a source of relief, a source of joy, a source of entertainment, and a piece of any individual’s livelihood. Tennis is a sport that is both anaerobic as well as aerobic, which is essential to the physical well-being of an individual. Tennis has also proven to be a therapeutic sport that is vital towards the mental health of any individual that picks up a tennis racquet and plays.
Whether it is hours, days, or years of playing, tennis could make an immense impact on the life of people in any condition, and from any walk of life. I hope that this article made you think a little bit deeper about tennis and how sports can have a significant impact in our lives.
Aki Wolfson is a USPTA-certified Tennis Professional and USPTA Wheelchair Tennis Professional who has taught at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for 25 years. She is the Tournament Director of the Jana Hunsaker Memorial Wheelchair Tennis Tournament, a role she has held for the last 19 years. She is the proud mother of two children, and when she isn’t teaching tennis, is an artist who specializes in ceramic sculptures.