Preparing for tennis

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My latest piece for BT Storytellers:

Of all the venues that make up the Olympic Park, there is one that holds a unique honour....

 When the wheelchair tennis players take to the courts of Eton Manor, they will bring competition to the only venue that has been built exclusively for Paralympic competition.

The grass courts of Wimbledon will be hosting the Olympic tennis, but the surface is not well suited to wheelchair players, as pushing is made harder. When coupled with the low bounce, this reduces the potential for longer, more open rallies, and would also make competition in the Quad category virtually impossible.

Instead, the Paralympic tennis players have been provided with a spanking new facility on the site of the old Eton Manor Boys Club in the Olympic Park. The venue boasts nine outdoor courts for competition and four practice courts. Following the Games, the building adjoining the site will also contain four indoor courts. Over all, Eton Manor will provide an impressive legacy to British tennis that could inspire champions in the years ahead.

But first there is the small matter of Paralympic competition to consider. This weekend saw Eton Manor host an International Tennis Federation level 3 rated tournament, part of the London Prepares series of test events.

The line up included some of the top names in wheelchair tennis, including Robin Amerlaan, former world number one, and Britain's Peter Norfolk, currently ranked number one in the world in the quad division.

And now, I would like us all to take a moment to appreciate Peter Norfolk's record. He is chasing quad singles Gold in London to add to previous honours that include Paralympic Gold in Athens as well as Beijing, and six Grand Slam titles (this puts him just two behind Fred Perry).

It is true to say that the field is smaller, but to dominate the division for so long is an impressive achievement, especially when one considers the fierce rivalry that has existed between Norfolk and America's David Wagner for much of his career.

Finished appreciating Mr. Norfolk's record? Impressive, yes? Right. Now let me introduce you to the current world number one in women's wheelchair tennis.

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Esther Vergeer has won three consecutive singles Paralympic Gold Medals. She has also won twenty Grand Slam titles (compared with, say, Roger Federer's sixteen). However, these figures do not do her tennis career justice.

Consider this: The last time Esther Vergeer lost a competitive match was in 2003. And she's been busy. Very busy. Vergeer's unbeaten run now stretches to four hundred and fifty-four consecutive matches. If there is a record to match this in any sport, I am yet to find it.

The women's final on Saturday at Eton Manor saw Vergeer take on Britain's number one Jordanne Whiley, currently ranked twelve in the world. On a windy and very cold centre court, Whiley started brightly, narrowly losing the first set 7-5 before Vergeer seemed to open her shoulders and pull away, taking the second set 6-1. It was an efficient performance in unpleasant conditions, but one can't help but think that Vergeer's record must surely sow a seed of doubt in any opponent's mind.

Before the women, Peter Norfolk got off to a slow start in the quad final, dropping the first set 2-6 before a rain interruption saw him regroup and take the next two sets 7-6 7-5. After the match Norfolk described the tournament as a great opportunity to see how the courts played and to get a feel for the facilities ahead of the Games.
"I can't wait to get out on Centre Court with a big British crowd on my side."

He's not the only one. As a passionate if erratic wheelchair tennis player myself, I am relishing the prospect of Paralympic tennis on the doorstep. The facilities are certainly impressive, if a little cold. Hopefully late summer will provide more conducive weather.

Olympic Park feels more exciting with each visit, as more and more areas are nearing completion and the numbers of visitors increase. That said, I was very disappointed to see empty seats in many venues. This is because there were only a limited number of tickets made available, but it seems scandalous not to use the opportunity to invite children from local schools for what could be the only opportunity they get to see competition in the venues.

This is a real waste of an opportunity, especially with tennis, which can do much to inspire more integration in sport and beyond. The International Tennis Federation is the governing body for ALL tennis players, and the only difference between a wheelchair player and someone on two feet is that the wheelchair player is allowed a second bounce of the ball. This means that I can take my tennis wheelchair to the local park and play with anybody. People immediately understand what's going on, and that can help to begin to change the way that some view disability sport.

I may not be Peter Norfolk, but for a couple of hours on Hackney Downs of a Sunday (with a bit of luck and a decent backhand slice), I can at least pretend...


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