Wheelchair Tennis, A West Side Tennis Club Tradition

by Michael Perlman

On April 29, the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) hosted a wheelchair tennis event, where wheelchair tennis players facing various disabilities demonstrated their discipline and the skills to maintain an active lifestyle. The club partnered with Wheelchair Sports Federation (WSF), a Queens-based nonprofit, and the event has become an annual tradition since the mid-2000s. Over 50 participants filled the courts, which included 8 local wheelchair athletes from WSF.

WSF fulfills their goal by promoting and educating the public about the physical and psychological benefits of adaptive sports by offering competitive opportunities at various levels, which can be accomplished through a minor rule change or somewhat modified equipment.

Naotaka Kinoshita, a WSTC member, a junior at Stuyvesant High School, and a member of Boy Scout Troop 422, dedicated much of the winter and spring towards planning this event. “Not many able-bodied people can say they experienced the challenges in using a wheelchair, and based on that small amount, even fewer can say that they’ve attempted to play tennis in a wheelchair,” he said.

WSTC Tennis Director Bob Ingersole said, “The wheelchair events that we hold are so inspirational. Just watch what these people have overcome and talk to them. They have to be admired for what they face every day.”

Forest Hills Gardens resident James Frangos, who served as WSTC President from 1990 to 1992, experienced a stroke in 2000, causing him to commute in a wheelchair. His entire family came to support him on court. “This event makes me feel very good,” he said. Encouraging other wheelchair athletes, he added, “Just go out there and get on with it!” His daughter, Alexandra Frangos said, “It has been fantastic for my dad’s health and happiness. There was a wheelchair exhibition at the WSTC in summer 2001, and my mom (the late WSTC member Eugenia S. Frangos) encouraged my dad to go, which was what helped get this event started.”

Another wheelchair tennis player, William Lehr of Stony Brook, NY, has been in a wheelchair since childhood, and grew up around wheelchair sports including basketball and racing. He explained, “These events integrate people who are on their feet with wheelchair tennis players on the same court. It is very difficult in the beginning to learn how to hold your racquet, push your wheelchair, and watch the ball, but once you practice, then the rest of the game can be executed pretty smoothly.” He also explained its universal aspect. “It offers great camaraderie, and in the end, we are all talking about tennis and not the wheelchair.”

Loaner wheelchairs were generously provided by the WSF, to enable club members and guests to immerse themselves in the quality of life that wheelchair athletes experience daily. “Participants engaged in a very humbling activity,” said Kinoshita.

Some WSTC members who used loaner wheelchairs, explained their experience. Olga Polunina was a first-time participant. She praised how the experienced wheelchair players were welcoming and taught key skills of moving around to access the ball. She said, “I was immensely impressed by their humor and courage in the face of these challenges, and I will definitely be watching wheelchair tennis events with a new level of appreciation.”

Sarah Mannion, another new participant, said “I knew it would be tough, but I wasn’t ready for just how tough. I always had great respect for the players, but after today even more so. Their determination and skills were nothing short of fantastic.”

Wheelchair tennis coach Donna Bernstein of WSF shared her vision. “Generating awareness is the first step, since the government isn’t always doing enough to help,” she said in reference to the importance of maximizing wheelchair accessibility in facilities. “Many are veterans who defended us and they’re struggling now. People in wheelchairs need to have experiences and not just sit home. It is beneficial for sports and their socialization.”