Tennis, On The Heart Beat
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Hearts on Wheels
A broken heart drove Nick Taylor to hit tennis balls in order to relieve the grief and fear brought on by likely terminal brain lesions doctors discovered in his dad.
Understandable, you say? That, and more.
You see, Nick Taylor, then an early teen, has been disabled since birth and his single dad took care of him every day.
“My dad got me out of bed, put me in bed and helped me eat,” he told OTHB.
Nick had to move in with his grandparents and somedays, in tears, would tape a tennis racket to his hand and from his wheelchair, hit those tennis balls against their garage door until his hands bled.
Today, Nick Taylor says his dad has baffled the medics, dodging the Grim Reaper, while Nick became a multiple medal winner in the Paralympic Games and an inspiration to wheelchair-bound athletes.
Nick Taylor is a decorated veteran on the wheelchair tennis scene - his 8 titles in 18 World Team Cup appearances are just the beginning of his story.
Known for his unique serve, in which he kicks the ball up into his hitting zone, Taylor is a four-time Paralympian with 3 gold medals to his name. He won doubles gold with David Wagner at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, in addition to a singles bronze in 2012 and a doubles silver in 2016. They’re working to qualify for the now 2021 Tokyo games.
Taylor and Wagner are the most successful doubles team in wheelchair tennis history, also winning 11 Grand Slam titles (7 at the US Open and 4 at the Australian Open) and 11 Doubles Masters crowns, per Team USA.
On court, it’s Wagner by the net, with fast hands and rifled volleys, and Taylor backboard on the baseline, returning balls that kick up with high spin.
“It just works so well,” Wagner, said. “I love what I do, and I know Nick does too. I think that shows.”
Taylor and Wagner are stars in the wheelchair tennis world, a collection of athletes whose love of tennis and each other is shown in a special sense of understanding and camaraderie.
Wheelchair tennis came into existence in 1976, when a young man by the name of Brad Parks became paralyzed after a freestyle skiing accident.
Brad and a fellow rehab patient, Jeff Minnebraker, decided to give tennis in a wheelchair a try across the street from the hospital at some local tennis courts.
Now one of the fastest-growing wheelchair sports in the world, it has its own professional tour, the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, which boasts over 150 tournaments across 40 different countries in every region of the world.
Jason Harnett is the USTA’s Wheelchair Team USA National Manager and Head Coach, himself able-bodied, has a unique admiration for the strength of heart his players exhibit.
“To see people with disabilities choose tennis is inspiring,” said Harnett. “It makes me think that no matter what I’m going through, there’s no reason to give up. It can be done.”
He points to his mentor and assistant coach Paul Walker who did compete as a wheelchair athlete before turning to coaching:
“One thing that makes Paul stand out from the other USTA wheelchair coaching staff is that he, like the players, is also in a chair. I look to Paul as a mentor. He is my go-to guy for many specific issues because he too is in a chair which, in essence, gives him more street cred.”
Walker has played with Nick Taylor, calling him a phenomenal player.
“It’s always great to be on the court with Nick, he brings something that is unique,” Walker says.
Wheelchair athletes in all sports share a unique strength of heart. A strength that allows players like Parks, Taylor, Wagner, and coaches like Walker to inspire and enable peers.
Each story, in its own way, has a heart strong saga akin to Nick Taylor’s grief-relieving racquet-smashing of tennis balls, which ultimately becomes the foundation of inspiring achievement.
And the beat goes on.