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Wheelchair tennis nationals return to Whistler

Event crucial for selection of 2008 Paralympic team



Canada’s top wheelchair tennis players — a short list this year due to a slew of injuries on the women’s side — are returning to Whistler this weekend for the 2007 Birmingham National Wheelchair Tennis Championships.

The event was held at the Whistler Racquet Club for the first time last year, and organizers were quick to bring it back.

“Even though it was minus 20 and snowing, everybody had such a wonderful time,” said event coordinator Ann McLeish. “The racquet club was so terrific and all of the athletes enjoyed the Whistler experience. We had an opportunity to bring it back this year and jumped at the chance.”

Due to the number of top seeded women who are currently sidelined with injuries, the tournament does not have enough athletes this year to field women’s paraplegic singles or doubles. Some women will compete in the quadriplegic category.

The men’s list includes five of the top-10 players in Canada, including top ranked Lee Carter. Carter is currently ranked 32 nd in the world in singles, and 20 th in doubles.

Philip Rowe, ranked third in Canada, will also be playing. He is one of Canada’s most senior wheelchair athletes at 56 years old, but still managed to capture the national doubles title last year with partner Corey Blatchford. Last month he took part in the Victorian Wheelchair Open in Australia, making the finals.

Other top-10 players include fourth-ranked Joel Dembe, fifth ranked Corey Blatchfod, and seventh ranked Eric Gilbert.

The quadriplegic division includes the top-six ranked players in Canada, including Sarah Hunter. Hunter is currently fourth in the world rankings. Her competition includes second-ranked Adrian Dieleman, third-ranked Brian McPhate, fourth-ranked Ken Bartel, fifth-ranked Bert Blokker, and sixth-ranked Alexis Chicoine.

Canada’s top female players were disappointed in the decision to cancel the women’s events, but understand that the tournament could not proceed with insufficient numbers. As a qualifier event for the 2008 Paralympic team, Tennis Canada will have to modify its criteria for selecting athletes for Beijing.

The tournament takes place from Nov. 22 to 25 at the Whistler Racquet Club on Northlands Boulevard.

If you’ve never seen a wheelchair tennis match, spectators are welcome to drop by the club and watch some of the competition.

“We did have some tennis fans come by last year to watch it, and they were really surprised by the level of expertise and athleticism of the athletes,” said McLeish. “Most people are surprised when they see it for the first time, then get into watching these really intense games.”

The rules are similar to able-bodied tennis, although athletes are allowed to hit the ball after two bounces. Regular sport wheelchairs are used, although some athletes use modified chairs adapted to the sport and their special needs. The modified chairs have a fifth wheel on the back which helps stability, quick-release axles that can be quickly locked for serves and unlocked for rallies, and sometimes a single supporting wheel up front to reduce drag.

The sport was added to the Paralympics in 1988, and has the distinction of being the fastest growing wheelchair sport. In addition to the Olympics there is an International Tennis Federation World Cup series, and more than 120 pro invitational tournaments a year worldwide.