Wheelchairs at Wimbledon: Is There a Lack of Exposure for Disabled Players?

Dann GaymerCorrespondent IJune 25, 2009

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 10:  Champion wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer of Netherlands returns a ball to Rafael Nadal of Spain  during day two of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament at the Ahoy Centre Rotterdam on February 10, 2009 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Today I was ready to settle down in front of my laptop with a cup of Earl Grey and ceremoniously throw my two cents into the rapidly growing pile regarding this year’s Championships.

I was all fired up to start hammering away about how Andy Murray has inherited the monumental burden that Tim Henman bore being Britain’s No. 1 tennis hopeful, or indeed how this pressure is now mounting with the absence of last year’s champion Rafael Nadal, removing one of the key obstacles between the Scotsman and the Wimbledon crown.

On a related note, I was primed and ready to philosophize whether the absence of Nadal will make this year's tournament a shadow of its predecessor, as it meant no chance of a repeat four-hour, 48-minute epic between Nadal and Roger Federer, who many believe may reclaim his title as the champion of Wimbledon.

Yet reading through the Wimbledon program, I came across something I had not expected to see listed: Between July 3 and July 5, when most folks will be glued to their television sets for the men’s and women’s finals, a doubles competition for both male and female wheelchair tennis players will be taking place on the green grass of SW19.

Wheelchair tennis is not just a fixture of the Paralympics and competitions within its own self-contained leagues; it is present in many of the major tennis tournaments across the world, including the Australian and U.S. Open. All the rules and equipment are identical to those used by able-bodied players with the exception of specially designed wheelchairs and the rules permitting the ball to bounce twice.

Wheelchair tennis had its official Wimbledon debut in 2005, when Britain's Jayant Mistry partnered with France’s Michael Jeremiasz and proceeded to win the first men's wheelchair doubles at The Championships. Though exhibition games had preceded it, that particular match was an important piece of tennis history, as it was the first competitive wheelchair tournament at The Championships and the first at a grass-court tournament in the world.

This year, Jayant Mistry will be absent. However his old partner Jeremiasz, who won gold in the men's doubles at the Beijing Paralympics, will be returning.

In the past, Jeremiasz has been World No. 1 for both doubles and singles, ensuring that this year’s men’s wheelchair doubles will be a sight to behold.

Yet despite the fact that both able-bodied players and their wheelchair-bound counterparts will be sweating over the green lawns of Wimbledon come the first few days of July, it does not appear that the latter will receive the same attention.

Neither the BBC or ESPN list the men’s or women’s wheelchair doubles on their broadcast schedules. At best, a few minutes of each match may end up in their end-of-the-day summaries.

Wheelchair tennis events take place all throughout the year and across the globe, yet little to no coverage is provided. Even at one of the biggest events on the tennis calendar, it hardly gets a look-in.

Over the past four years of wheelchair tennis being included in The Championships, I’d heard it rarely mentioned. Why is this?

If it is because there is not sufficient interest in the event, then surely the oldest and arguably most coveted Tennis Championship in the world could help generate a little more fanfare. Maybe more time and coverage should be devoted to wheelchair tennis at The Championships in order to help give the sport some exposure.

After all, wheelchair players train just as hard as any other.

Giving attention due to some misguided sympathy for players who have to deal with an adversity is not what is needed.

Instead, maybe they should just get a little recognition for being gifted players in their own right.

Regardless, every year that wheelchair tennis is featured at Wimbledon is a move in the right direction. It just remains to be seen how long it will take to truly close the distance between the able-bodied champions like Federer and their disabled counterparts like Jeremiasz.