At the Scottsdale Ranch Park and Tennis Center last weekend, 16 wheelchair tennis players of all ages and from across the Valley took to the court for the 360 Fast 4 Wheelchair Tennis Tournament.
This was more than merely a game.
The tournament and the several months’ worth of lessons leading up to it created a new and much-needed community in Scottsdale for people with disabilities.
“I am really grateful that I live in a community that supports wheelchair sports,” said 15-year-old tournament player and Scottsdale resident Maddie Kasten.
Created by Phoenix-based nonprofit Ability360 in partnership with the City of Scottsdale and the Scottsdale Charros, the 360 Fast 4 Wheelchair Tennis Tournament was culminated weeks of lessons taught by three-time paralympian Kaitlyn Verfuerth.
Most of the players, ranging from 6 to over 50 years old, were new to the sport and since October spent their two evenings a week learning and practicing at Scottsdale Ranch Park as part of the tennis program.
“Sharing the game of tennis with others is my passion,” said Verfuerth, a University of Arizona graduate who started playing wheelchair tennis in high school and competed on the U.S. Paralympic Team in Rio de Janeiro, Beijing and Athens.
Verfuerth loves teaching newbies.
“It is so liberating to be able to teach someone brand new to the sport and watching them hit the ball over the net for the first time,” she said. “It is also really exciting to see players realize they can do something that they never thought they would ever be able to do.”
Wheelchair tennis players are allowed two bounces of the ball and the second can land outside the court.
Played on a regulation tennis court, its Fast 4 format is best-out-of-three sets with four games each versus the traditional six.
“When I tell people that I play wheelchair tennis, I get a lot of interesting looks,” Verfuerth said. “People will say: ‘How do you do that?’ ‘So, you push and move with the racket in your hand?’ ‘Is the court smaller?’”
“I think a common misconception is that the rules are completely different for wheelchair tennis than for non-wheelchair tennis, but that’s not the case. In fact, they’re almost exactly the same,” said Maddie, who described wheelchair tennis as “really fun” and “great exercise.”
“It gets your blood flowing and your energy going,” she continued, “especially after being locked down in quarantine for so long.”
Verfuerth has seen increased interest in the sport, and the pandemic likely contributed to its recent growth.
“Tennis is a really great sport that is socially distancing,” Verfuerth explained.
“Wheelchair athletes that play wheelchair basketball or rugby haven’t been able to play their sport because of the contact and how close everyone is on the court. Tennis is a great alternative and cross training for these other sports. I have a lot of wheelchair basketball players and rugby players out now playing tennis,” she said.
Maddie started taking lessons with Verfuerth for two reasons: She wanted to stay active and she wanted to learn from a paralympian.
It was a bonus that Maddie was able to play with a friend.
“I really enjoy working with her,” Maddie said of Verfuerth. “She’s super creative at finding ways to motivate us, especially for learning skills that might not be interesting, like by making things into a game or competition or challenge, sometimes with a prize at the end.”
Another misconception about the sport, Maddie said, is the notion that tennis requires running around.
“If anything, I believe that wheelchair sports are as hard if not harder than any other sport – and that’s what makes them amazing to play and to watch,” Maddie said.
She noted that wheelchair tennis is inclusive, too.
“I started playing wheelchair tennis on my high school tennis team. The only difference between me and my teammates was that I used a wheelchair and I got two bounces. Anyone in a wheelchair can play tennis on any USTA league or in high school,” she said.
Ability360 offers private and small group wheelchair tennis lessons as well as clinics for all ages and abilities.
Men and women complete separately in the open division, while players with higher levels of impairment compete in the mixed quad division.
Those who took part in the Ability360 wheelchair tennis program came from all over the Valley, including Scottsdale, and beyond.
“We even have a few from Prescott,” Verfuerth said.
Verfuerth created a brand-new community in Scottsdale for people with disabilities.
“I wish that other cities were as helpful in creating adaptive sport opportunities for people with disabilities. The sports really help bring our community together and enable us to have fun and live healthy and independent lives,” Maddie said.
“It means a lot to our family,” Maddie’s mother, Jenifer Kasten, added.
“This is the first time that our city [Scottsdale] has sponsored anything like this,” Kasten continued. “We have always had to drive to Mesa or to Ability360 itself for Maddie to participate in wheelchair sports. This was really special, because this is where we live.”
Verfuerth moved to Gilbert from Flagstaff with the intention of starting wheelchair tennis in the Valley, but nothing stuck until she partnered with Ability360, a nonprofit launched in 1977 that offers and promotes programs designed to empower people with disabilities.
“I really believe my success to this program is really because of my amazing support and staff at Ability360,” Verfuerth said.
Verfuerth also credits her Arizona State University (ASU) intern, Ilze Hattingh, who plays No. 1 singles and doubles for ASU’s women’s team, for helping make the program successful.
“I could have not done this season without her,” Verfuerth said. “It’s really been a fun ride these last seven months.”
Now that Scottsdale has its own wheelchair tennis community, Verfuerth describes it as “really special.”
“These athletes not only see each other weekly at tennis practice, but now they go out after and grab some food or a drink after practice. They hit balls with each other on the weekends or go hang out. I love the community that we have created,” Verfuerth said.
Those interested in playing wheelchair tennis can contact Verfuerth at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 386-4284. Or, call Ability360 at 602-256-2245.