Listening to Troy Eap on the phone, it’s almost like you can hear him smile when he talks about tennis. After all, Eap is just like every other player when it comes to speaking about the game he loves.
The only real difference is that Eap, who is paralyzed from the waist-down, roams the tennis courts while sitting down.
"I love playing the game, and I always have," said Eap, who resides in Upper Darby, Pa. "It’s just you out there against your opponent, and I like that. You depend on yourself. It’s a chance to show who you are."
Eap, 35, sustained a spinal cord injury three years ago that put him in a wheelchair. The life-long sports fanatic is now one of the many Americans playing competitive wheelchair tennis, pushing himself to the limit and watching spectators’ jaws drop at nearly every court he plays on.
Like every tennis player, Eap has his strengths and weaknesses on the court. His forehand wins him a lot of matches, and his serve is a constant work-in progress. Like most, he says he doesn’t get to the courts enough, as he manages school, family and more into a daily routine.
Eap said he travels to an average of three national tournaments per year, and stays local for other competition. He generally plays in events like the annual wheelchair tournament in Hempfield, Pa., which has run for 10 years in conjunction with its Pro Circuit event.
Just like most competitive players, it turns out Eap is addicted to tennis. "The travel gets long and can be draining, but it’s worth it," said Eap, who is studying to become a math teacher. "After a tournament, the recovery can take a while. I always say ‘this is my last one,’ but I keep coming back."
Some people may be surprised at Eap’s abilities, but for him, tennis in a chair became normal. Tennis, in more ways than one, actually helped Eap find a way to accept his injury and move on. Eap’s outlook is simple. His injury may have changed his life, but he wasn’t going to let it run his life.
"At first, when you’re in the hospital after being injured, you feel like you’re the only one," he said. "When you get out and see others in chairs, becomes regular. It took me about a year to feel that way, and especially on the court, I accept that this is just how it is. I still get a chance to do what I love to do."
Prior to his injury, Eap was a do-it-all type of athlete. He was an avid rock-climber, biker and basketball player. In high school he learned to play tennis and was a standout track-and-field competitor. So when it came to competition, giving it up wasn’t much of an option. Instead, he decided to adjust to the specially-made tennis chair and give tennis his best shot.
"Playing tennis is the best way for me to stay involved with sports, and it’s just a great way to get away from things," said Eap. "If I’m on the court, everything else goes away. You don’t think about anything except for the match. There are no worries."
Mark Chilutti, Assistant Vice President of Development at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, competed in wheelchair tennis for nearly eight years. He is the director of the summer tournament at Magee Rehab Hospital and knows the ins and outs of the sport. He says the approach by many wheelchair athletes is the same as anyone else.
"The game is the same," said Chilutti, who is paralyzed from the chest-down after being injured by a gunshot wound nearly a decade ago. "I always thought, ‘hey, if I can get to the ball, I can hit it just as hard as I could before.’"
The big challenge, then, comes down to mobility. Like in any sport, the athlete has to learn the new dynamics of the game, build a comfort level and, of course, practice.
"If you sat down in a chair and had people hit balls at you, it’s not bad," Chilutti added. "A swing is a swing. Still, the goal isn’t to hit it right at the person, so like anything, it takes time to get better. You have to take little steps and adjust: win a point, win a set, win a match and win a tournament."
On a national level, Dan James is certainly doing his part.
As USTA Manager of Wheelchair Tennis and the U.S. Wheelchair Tennis coach, James is an integral part of a dedicated team building the sport in the United States. Aside from coaching and assisting numerous other athletes, James is also the coach of Jon Rydberg, who is one of the world’s top wheelchair athletes in any sport.
On a national scale, the sport’s depth as a whole is improving, but James said there is still a lot more growth to go. Many players have second jobs to make ends meet, and until the sport gains more popularity in the United States and people begin to pay to see it played, that won’t change. Another struggle comes with travel, as the most competitive tournaments on the biggest stages often take place throughout Europe and require a big budget and plenty of time for travel.
"It’s difficult to say even how many people are playing in the U.S.," said James, who was named the 2011 Wheelchair Tennis Coach of the Year by the International Tennis Federation. "On an elite level, we’re spread out all over the country. On a local and section level, we’re having more tournaments than ever, but not producing as many elite players as in the past."
The goal now for the wheelchair tennis community is simple, but can still be harder than it sounds. "We want to educate," James said. "We’re looking to grow local programs, fund the programs and improve coaching all over, starting with the grassroots level and working our way up."
"Let’s say there were 30 million people playing tennis in the U.S in the past few years," added Jeremiah Yolkut, a USTA manager who works closely with wheelchair tennis. "You’ve got to think there are maybe 20,000 players out there in chairs trying out the sport, but we’ll never be able to count them all. Even without exact participation numbers, we just have to aim at growing the game and do what we can. The Olympics are selling out and the Paralympics are the same way. This is a real sport and people will buy in."
Spectators’ looks have become part of the routine.
"It’s always interesting when you get to a court and there are able-bodied players there, watching you get into your chair," said Chilutti. "It’s no surprise that they’re looking – I would be, too. But once people see you playing, they’re really blown away. The looks may go from surprised to astonished."
Those looks don’t seem to change, even when a player is simply talking about the game.
"At the start of a new class, a lot of times you have to talk about what you do in your spare time," Eap said. "I say that I play wheelchair tennis, and people look around like I’m crazy."
Yolkut sees the looks in a different way. "It seems like people are generally more impressed than surprised," he said. "To see a player have a goal in mind, put in their hard work and dedication and have success, it’s something I have always admired in players. You see these people playing, and you notice that there is nothing that can stop them."
THE SPORT’S POTENTIAL
Of all the things that wheelchair tennis does have, a ceiling isn’t one of them.
Instead, the game is designed to even the playing field as much as possible and give players a fair opportunity to do what they want on the court. Boy or girl, man or woman, chair or no chair, there is no outline that needs to be followed when it comes to achievement.
"One of the great things about this sport is that it’s much easier than most other sports to pick up and play with your able-bodied counterpart," said Yolkut. "Since a player in a chair gets an extra bounce, you can pick up a racquet and play with a spouse, sibling or friend. You can’t say the same thing about a lot of other wheelchair sports. "
Basketball, for example, has no way to level the game. But in tennis, in theory, you could have anybody at the highest level playing at center court at a Grand Slam.
"The game is open to anything," Yolkut said. "You could, in theory, have a wheelchair player getting far in top able-bodied tournaments. It’s probably not likely, but it is open to the local tournaments, the Grand Slams – anything. You really never know."