How One Man’s Idea Spawned Wheelchair Tennis05.06.2012
American Brad Parks came up with the idea of Wheelchair Tennis during his rehabilitation in the 1970’s, and the sport has flourished ever since.
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“The most rewarding thing is that it is still growing and developing. I love seeing the development of the chairs."
When Brad Parks was just 18 years old, he suffered an injury during a freestyle skiing competition that left him a paraplegic.
During his rehabilitation, the American began experimenting with tennis as a tool for recreational therapy, and he and wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnenbraker immediately began discussing the possibilities of tennis for those in a wheelchair.
The following year, in 1977, the two began promoting Wheelchair Tennis across the USA’s west coast through a series of camps and exhibitions, and they began to establish the rules of the game.
That May, the Los Angeles City and Recreation Department hosted the first Wheelchair Tennis tournament, drawing 20 players from the area.
The sport quickly caught on, so much so that in 1980 Parks joined up with David Saltz, Jim Worth and Dave Kiley to form the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis (NFWT) and establish a circuit of 10 tournaments across the USA, including a national championship event that attracted over 70 players in its inaugural year.
For that, Parks is now heralded as the pioneer of Wheelchair Tennis, a sport that is now practiced in more than 100 countries and included in all four Grand Slam events.
“I had the opportunity to start an organization to start developing the sport, organize tournaments and give exhibitions and clinics to show and teach others to play,” Parks said. “It caught on and we all felt this was a very special sport at that time, allowing the disabled the ability to play with able-bodied friends.”
Parks has been credited for spreading the sport internationally, as he held clinics throughout Europe and Asia in the 1980’s, and by 1988 the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation (IWTF) was formed to govern the sport with Parks as its first president.
The sport was included in the Wheelchair Games in Stoke Mandeville in 1987, and then it became a full-medal sport at the Paralympic Games for the first time in Barcelona in 1992, where Parks partnered with the late Randy Snow to win the men’s doubles gold medal.
“I did think the sport would grow. I knew it was special, so this doesn't surprise me,” Parks said. “But I did not think it would be part of the Paralympics.”
In 1998, the IWTF was fully integrated into the International Tennis Federation (ITF), making it the first disabled sport to achieve such a union on the international level.
Then in 2007, Roland Garros became the last of the four Grand Slam events to integrate competitive Wheelchair Tennis events into its programme.
At the London 2012 Paralympics, 112 athletes will compete in six medal events in the sport.
Parks, meanwhile, now serves as an ITF ambassador, offering advice where needed and attending various Wheelchair Tennis events around the world to help promote the sport. He recently became the first person associated with Wheelchair Tennis to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“I hope it keeps growing and developing the way it has been in the past 10 years,” Parks said.
“The most rewarding thing is that it is still growing and developing. I love seeing the development of the chairs. I never thought that a wheelchair would be made for the sport of Wheelchair Tennis.”