How did wheelchair tennis become popular?

It is difficult to imagine that by the efforts of only one man, an entire sport took birth. But there is one man, who made this imagination, a reality.

In 1976, Brad Parks was skiing as a participant in an amateur competition. An unfortunate event followed. Parks broke his back and flagged the stage of his life where he could never walk. In the hospital, Parks was in dismay of what he had fallen prey to but his mind was racing somewhere else.

“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?”

After being released from the rehabilitation process, Parks went to picnic with his family. A few of the family members were playing tennis. Parks wanted to have a shot and so they handed him the racquet.

When Parks was in the hospital he developed a healthy rapport with his therapist, Jeff Minnebraker. Jeff was a victim of a car accident. In order to play tennis, he designed a chair for himself. During the picnic, when Parks began playing tennis with his father and gained some confidence he formed a ground-breaking alliance with Jeff.

Parks laid down the rules of his sport which is known as Wheelchair Tennis. Simultaneously, he also promoted Jeff’s lighter version of wheelchair which was suitable for wheelchair tennis. One year hence, they organized a wheelchair tennis tournament in Los Angeles. Parks won the tournament. In 1980, Parks established the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis (NFWT). The NFWT formed a circuit of 10 tournaments within thee USA. This included the US Open, which was the first international wheelchair tennis event. He remained the chairman of that tournament for nearly 20 years.

“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 didn’t give up so easily. He played a lot of exhibition matches across the States to promote the sport’s new budding branch involving the wheelchair. In 1981, he founded the Wheelchair Tennis Players Association (WTPA). Unlike the NFWT, the WTPA was more global. From a little bit of help from the NFWT, the WTPA formed the first Grand Prix Circuit in wheelchair tennis. Three noteworthy things occurred:

  • First wheelchair tennis tournament outside the USA took place in 1982 in France.
  • First team competition of wheelchair tennis tournament was held at World Team Cup in 1985.
  • Randy Snow won the most US Open titles (10)

“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 1993, Brad Parks was inducted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Every year, the person with exceptional accomplishments in wheelchair tennis is handed the Brad Parks Award.

In 1988, the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation was formed with Brad Parks taking over its presidency. In 1998, The IWTF was taken over by the ITF and USTA took over the NFWT.

Ellen DeLange, the ITF’s current Wheelchair Tennis Manager said,

“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.”

The NEC tour that was found in 1992 currently controls the wheelchair tennis circuit. It comprises of more than 40 tournaments involving more than 150 countries and has more than $1.5 million prize money to offer.

“The sport of wheelchair tennis has been such an important part of my life and I am very pleased to be able to give back to the sport and the ITF. After my accident wheelchair tennis gave me a sport that I could enjoy with able bodied friends and family, and then as the sport grew it gave me the opportunity to compete at the highest levels.”

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