More sports / Tennis

Wheelchair tennis: Biggest coup for Bolton Arena in years

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The venue is synonymous with wheelchair tennis. Photo credit: Alexander P Kapp.

The Bolton Arena was completed in 2001 and it has brought world to Bolton’s doorstep; it hosted badminton during the 2002 Commonwealth Games and every year the International Tennis Federation (ITF) wheelchair tennis tour visits too.

The world, much like the notion of progress, usually passes Bolton by. Which is why it is surprising that when Bolton does hold a global event attendance is sparse. But then wheelchair tennis is nothing if not an obscure sport yet the standard is high and the price – nothing at all – is right.

The atmosphere is more intense than you might think at the event with a serious amount of prize money and points up for grabs. During one fiery first round encounter a Russian competitor made his fourteen-year-old opponent cry and offered no apology.

Commenting on the Russian’s behaviour, competitor James Ascroft of Great Britain said, “It’s really not nice but it will toughen the boy up.”

There are a lot who don’t take it so seriously. Mixed in with that tense atmosphere is a family-like feeling. Most of these athletes know each other and have been friends for years. Indeed, Britain’s Helen Bond had several fellow entrants staying with her during the tournament.

For them this is about seeing old faces, picking up some cash and maybe a few ranking points. They even laugh about their standard of play compared to the top ten players they rub shoulders with at these tournaments.

Talking about entrance fees Ascroft even remarked, “They don’t even bother taking my money anymore I’m so rubbish.”

Of course there are those who take the game very seriously. Quad wheelchair is a variation of the sport for those with limited use of all four limbs. Sam Schroder, of the Netherlands, is just 17 and already world number nine. He won the quad doubles and singles at last week’s Preston Open before achieving the same feat seven days later.

Schroder said: “I tried lots of other sports like wheelchair basketball but I just love tennis.

“I especially like playing doubles when it’s you and your partner working together.”

Now if you had no working limbs wouldn’t tennis be one of the things to cross off the list? Not for Schroder. Local coach Rob Cross said, “It makes him resilient and he just gets on with it.

“There’s no nonsense.”

The whole tournament is very open – spectator’s mix with chair umpires and competitors. Losing a match and only getting one game is seen as par for the course.

There is a camaraderie and sense of fair play here from most of the competitors.

They eat lunch together, play table tennis together and cheer each other on but when it comes to match play all that is forgotten. It is a unique environment in which to witness a top-flight tennis tournament.

The serve is one of the most crucial shots in the game, with one player able to control the rally from the very first ball. The rallies often last a long time as wheelchair users get two bounces.

This maximizes defence and extends the length of the point.

That’s why you get players like Bond, who is a very handy player, losing 6-0, 6-0 to Louise Hunt because she cannot compete with the agility and shot-making.

Those who are more able-bodied have a much bigger advantage on the wheelchair tennis tour.

The players love the event and look forward to coming here.

Brit James Shaw said: “It’s the biggest event in the UK and I love how good the hard courts are here.

“It’s well run and only the best turn up to compete.”

The winners, top seeds Stefan Ollsen and Marjolin Buis, seem almost irrelevant.

This is a tournament that seems to be about where you are in your career.

For those in the top 30 who are young, the winning and the ranking points really matter.

For the worn veterans it is an excellent chance to make a bit of cash and see your old mates.

Bolton, long bereft of any kind of splendour, now has some jewels to show off.

One of them is Wanderer’s home ground and is well known in those parts.

The other is the arena and both are worth a visit.

 

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