By Ernie Williamson The Bulletin
You probably know about Novak Djokovic and Coco Gauff, even if you pay little attention to sports.
Both tennis players dominated headlines at the recent U.S. Open, Djokovic tying the record with his 24th major singles championship, and Gauff winning the women’s title at only 19.
But it was Diede de Groot who caught my eye.
Never heard of her? That is too bad.
De Groot has more major titles Djokovic and Gauff … and she has accomplished this in a wheelchair.
The 26-year-old Dutch star recently won her sixth straight U.S. Open wheelchair singles title in New York. It is her 12th straight Grand Slam wheelchair singles championship. She has won 20 major singles titles overall and 17 doubles titles, giving her 37 major titles.
She has not lost a singles match since falling in the French Open semifinals in 2020.
I have more interest in de Groot than most of you because I was a passionate tennis player before a spinal cord disorder left me a paraplegic 11 years ago.
I tried wheelchair tennis after my injury but found it too big a challenge to roll a wheelchair and hit a tennis ball at the same time.
Organized wheelchair tennis originated in California in 1976 after former acrobatic skier Brad Parks was paralyzed in a skiing accident. He turned to wheelchair tennis.
The rules are not much different than able-bodied tennis. The court is the same size, the height of the net is the same, and conventional balls and rackets are used.
The main difference is the “two bounce rule” which means a player can let the ball bounce twice before hitting it, although only the first bounce needs to be in the court of play.
I was curious about de Groot. What kind of disability did she have? How has she overcome it?
Soon after her birth, doctors discovered a length difference in her legs. From an early age, she walked with a prosthetic leg. However, after a few hip surgeries she found that playing sports standing up was impossible.
Her right hip could not handle walking more than 10 minutes.
“My physiotherapists encouraged me to play wheelchair tennis,” de Groot says. “I loved it straight away.”
She started playing at age 7 and learned how to hold the racquet and move the chair at the same time.
De Groot turned professional at 17 and began playing full time.
She traveled the world competing. Most of the time she was alone.
“This taught me a lot of valuable things,” she says. ‘I know myself, and I learned how to be independent.”
De Groot is not the only successful Dutch wheelchair player. The Netherlands has become a hotbed for the sport, and the Dutch have dominated the Paralympics, winning every title since wheelchair tennis became a medal event 32 years ago.
There are two classes for the sport, the Open class and the Quad class.
Competitors in the Open class have lower limb impairments but normal upper limb and hand function.
Competitors in the Quad class have impairment in both upper and lower limbs.
In case you are wondering, you do need to be disabled to play in wheelchair tennis tournaments.
(Contact Ernie at email@example.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516).