Wheelchair Tennis, a history

The sport of wheelchair tennis owes its existence to the American, Brad Parks. Parks, who had been an acrobat (freestyle) skier before an injury left him paraplegic, began playing tennis as a form of recreational therapy in 1976, when he met with wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnenbraker more substantial ideas for wheelchair tennis as a sport began to emerge. 

By the early 1980s wheelchair tennis had made its way over to Europe and in 1982 France became the first European country with a wheelchair tennis programme.

Wheelchair Tennis, a competitive sport

In 1977 Parks and Minnenbraker began promoting the sport in the USA and in May the first ever wheelchair tennis tournament was held. During the rest of the 1970s, the sport continued to grow in the USA and in 1980 the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis (NFWT) was formed. In the same year, the inaugural US Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships was fittingly won by Brad Parks. 

In 1985 the European Wheelchair Tennis Federation was formed, hosting a number of tournaments across the continent. 

Two years later, in 1987, wheelchair tennis was played for the first time at the Wheelchair Games, held in Stoke Mandeville, England. 

In 1988, the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation (IWTF) was established. 

The first International Tennis Federation (ITF) Wheelchair Tennis Tour was organised in 1992 and it consisted of eleven international tournaments. Wheelchair tennis became increasingly established during the 1990s, with prize money being awarded at more and more tournaments, the ITF incorporating wheelchair tennis rules alongside tennis’ official rules, and the IWTF becoming fully integrated into the ITF in 1998. 

In 2005 wheelchair men’s doubles was played at Wimbledon – the first time a wheelchair tennis tournament had been played on grass. Men’s and women’s singles and doubles and quad doubles are now all played at Wimbledon. 

The sport is very popular and has grown steadily since 1992 when there were just 11 international tournaments. There are currently over 150 tournaments taking place in over 40 countries across the world and since 2007 wheelchair tennis events have been played at all Grand Slams.

Wheelchair Tennis, a Paralympic event

An increasingly established sport, at the 1988 Seoul Summer Paralympics wheelchair tennis was played as a demonstration sport and four years later was introduced officially in Barcelona. 

Since 1992, men’s and women’s singles and doubles have been played at every Paralympics. 

Wheelchair tennis continued to make big strides at the turn of the millennium and at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, singles and doubles events were added for athletes with quadriplegia (both events were, and remain, mixed gender).

Wheelchair Tennis at the Summer Paralympic Games

  • 1988 Seoul, South Korea – Demonstration sport
  • 1992 Barcelona, Spain –
  • 1996 Atlanta, USA –
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia –
  • 2004 Athens, Greece –
  • 2008 Beijing, China –
  • 2012 London, UK –

British Wheelchair Tennis medal winners

  • 2004 Athens, Greece
    Peter Norfolk – gold in Mixed Singles Quad
    Mark Eccleston. Peter Norfolk – silver in Mixed Doubles Quad
  • 2008 Beijing, China
    Peter Norfolk – gold in Mixed Singles Quad
    James Burdekin, Peter Norfolk – bronze in Mixed Doubles Quad
  • 2012 London, UK
    Andrew Lapthorne, Peter Norfolk – silver in Quad Doubles
    Lucy Shuker, Jordanne Whiley – bronze in Women's Doubles

How Wheelchair Tennis has evolved

Since 2007 wheelchair tennis events have been played at all four Grand Slams. As such, the sport is increasingly professionalised and in 2000 an anti-doping programme was introduced for wheelchair tennis athletes. 

The wheelchairs have become more and more specialized for the game of wheelchair tennis. 

Since the new millennium, the main evolution has been the growth in wheelchair tennis for athletes with quadriplegia, athletes playing in the quads section are allowed to use electric wheelchairs.

Rules of Wheelchair Tennis

To be eligible for wheelchair tennis tournaments athletes must have a permanent mobility impairment. Athletes with an impairment affecting up to two limbs compete in the men’s and women’s singles and doubles events, whilst those with three or more limbs impaired compete in the quad singles and doubles (which are mixed gender). 

There are very few differences between wheelchair tennis and able-bodied tennis in terms of the essential of the game; the court is the same size, the net the same, as are the rackets and balls.
The main rule change is that the ball can bounce twice rather than just once. The second bounce does not need to be within the boundaries of the court before the player hits it back. This rule change is critical as it enables wheelchair athletes to more easily meet the ball and therefore increases the length of rallies.
Aside from this, the only other specific rule for wheelchair tennis is that players must be stationary before serving the ball. They are allowed a single push of the wheelchair before hitting the serve. 

Matches are the best of three sets, with sets being decided by tie-break when necessary.

Governing bodies

The international governing body is the International Tennis Federation

The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) is the National Governing Body for tennis in Great Britain, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Regional clubs

England
The Tennis Foundation website has more information and a local session finder.

Scotland
The Tennis Foundation website has more information and a local session finder.

Wales
The Tennis Foundation website has more information and a local session finder.

Northern Ireland
Disability Sport NI have a Disability Sports Club or Hub search here.

References
https://www.paralympic.org/wheelchair-tennis
https://www.itftennis.com/wheelchair/home.aspx
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheelchair_tennis_at_the_Summer_Paralympics
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheelchair_tennis
https://www.tennisfoundation.org.uk/
https://paralympics.org.uk/sports/wheelchair-tennis

Wheelchair Tennis stories

An interview with Jayant Mistry

Jayant Mistry first played Paralympic tennis at the Barcelona games in 1992 and retired after the Athens games in 2004. Read more

Peter Norfolk at the Japanese Open using an early three-wheel chair for wheelchair tennis in 1998

Peter Norfolk OBE, a short biography

Peter took up wheelchair tennis after watching a demonstration at Stoke Mandeville following a motorcycle accident in 1979. Read more

Differences between professional wheelchair tennis and the Paralympics

Peter Norfolk is interviewed about professional tennis. Read more