"Since our first tournament, the way I was looking at the players was completely different. The way they joke and the way they treat their disability. That helped me, my people and everyone who was coming to the tournament to see that this was normal life."
Former tennis world No.5 Tommy Robredo’s perceptions towards people with disability completely changed after getting involved with wheelchair tennis.
The Spaniard has been the tournament director of the Open Memorial Santi Silvas in the city of Olot, Spain, since its inauguration in 2009, in memory of his lifelong friend and wheelchair tennis player.
“Before I knew Santi (Silvas), you would say something like ‘be careful’ or take care.’ But since our first tournament, the way I was looking at the players was completely different. The way they joke and the way they treat their disability.
“That helped me, my people and everyone who was coming to the tournament to see that this was normal life. I knew it, of course, but then you could see it in real life.
“There were times I would never ask someone why they are disabled, why they don’t have a leg, but for the kids it’s the first thing they ask. So when you see kids talking to the players and wanting to know all these things it’s unbelievable.
“I remember one day a kid asked one of the wheelchair players, ‘If you could walk again, would you do it?’ The teacher didn’t like the question, but the wheelchair player said that it was a great question and then said ‘no, I’m good right now, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m used to this, and I live with this.’
“The kid, the teacher and even myself were like ‘wow’. Things like this are very impactful and it’s great to have opportunities like this for people to realise what it is like to be disabled.”
Creating the Open Memorial Santi Silvas
Apart from playing the sport, Silvas used to run tournaments for wheelchair tennis.
Robredo explained: “It was not easy for him because you need a lot of money to organise a tournament. He would ask me to help him with sponsors because I was well-known. But I was playing, practising and travelling so much that I was always too busy.
“Then one day I said ‘Ok, I’m going to help you’. So he shared his contacts and sponsor notes with me. But then he was sick in hospital for 18 months and eventually died and I said, ‘right, I’m going to do it for him’ and we had the first Open Memorial Santi Silvas (in 2009).
“It’s impressive to see anybody who wants to play the sport at the top level. I think the players are amazing; the top 10 or 20 are very professional. They practise a lot, they are mentally strong. The level they have and their passion is great.”
The birth of the Open Memorial Santi Silvas brought with it the birth of the Tommy Robredo Foundation which continues to support an increasing number of opportunities for disabled people.
“We created the Foundation for the tournament because I didn’t want to earn any money from the tournament and I wanted to use the money for something good for wheelchair tennis,” said Robredo, who was one of six ITF Wheelchair Tennis Ambassadors announced in 2010.
Raising awareness and creating opportunities
“Anytime I asked any player to make a video for me to promote the tournament, they have and are always very happy to support the tournament. Some of the players came to the tournament to take part in a clinic or exhibition. We’ve had a lot of famous players such as Martina Hingis, Conchita Martinez, Albert Costa - it’s great to have their support.”
However, not all tournaments enjoy the same support with their promotion.
“For me now it was very easy to create a tournament with the support I have had, but there has to be plenty of opportunities for tournament sponsors at all levels. I think there are always improvements that can be made to make more opportunities for the players,” said Robredo.