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Top wheelchair tennis stars in Geneva

Switzerland is hosting two major events in the wheelchair tennis calendar.

(Swiss Open / swissinfo)

Over the next two weeks, Switzerland is hosting two of the biggest events in the wheelchair tennis calendar: the Swiss Open in Geneva and the World Team Cup in Sion. It's a chance for people in Switzerland to see one of the fastest growing disabled sports.

Geneva is reckoned to be the third most important stop on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) tour, after the US and British Opens.

But this year it is bigger than usual, with many players using it as the ideal preparation for the World Cup, which gets under way next Monday.

"For me, Geneva is a great tournament. One of my favourites," says the Swiss women's number one, Karin Erath. "It's well-organised, the atmosphere is very friendly, and the wheelchair facilities are excellent."

Instead of the usual 80 competitors, 132 have come from all over the world to the Bois-des-Frères sports centre in the commune of Vernier. Eight of the top 10 men and five of the best 10 women - including the top three - are in Geneva.

The men to beat will be the American world number one, Stephen Welch, and the Australian who beat him the Paralympics final in Sydney, David Hall. In the women's event, number two seed, Daniela di Toro of Australia will be trying to stop the Dutch women, Esther Vergeer and Maaike Smit, ranked first and third respectively.

Because wheelchair tennis is labelled a "disabled sport", it finds it difficult to attract a wider public, and therefore sponsorship. Most of the spectators at the tournament were fellow players and coaches. However, played at its highest level, it a compelling spectacle, requiring just as much skill, stamina and determination as "normal" tennis.

"I love it because it's a big challenge," Erath, who is ranked number 19 in the world, told swissinfo.

"It's very difficult to play tennis in a wheelchair. You need good anticipation and you need to be a good physical condition," the Basel-based player explains.

Wheelchair tennis was born in 1976 and the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation (IWTF) was founded in 1988. Then, there were just eight member countries. Today, the sport is played in more than 80 countries around the world, making it one of the fastest growing and most demanding of wheelchair sports.

Part of the appeal is that disabled and able-bodied players can play together, since the rules are exactly the same, with one exception: in wheelchair tennis, the ball is allowed to bounce twice.

"Disabled players like the fact that they can compete against able-bodied people," says the Swiss Open tournament director, Sybille Bonvin.

"It's also much less complicated than other disabled sports. In the 100-metres, you have so many different categories, that spectators can find it confusing," she told swissinfo.

The only requirement to compete in wheelchair tennis is that the player must be medically diagnosed as having a mobility-related disability. There is a separate competition for Quadriplegics.

There are around 300 men and 200 women in the world rankings. About ten men and five women are fully professional. Karin Erath is not one of them. Like many players, she has to rely on her employers to give her extra holidays to compete in the big tournaments.

To become professional, a player needs to do more than win tournaments like the Swiss Open, where the first prize is around $700. To be a full-time player, individuals need generous sponsors and the right nationality.

The level of compensation that people get after accidents varies considerably depending on the country in which they live. Moreover, in some countries, like Australia, the United States and The Netherlands, wheelchair tennis has the backing of the national tennis federations. This is not the case in Switzerland.

"I think it's a pity we're in the ITF but not the Swiss Tennis Federation," Erath says.

"We are associated to an organisation that concerns itself with the disability (the Swiss Paraplegics Association), rather than the tennis," says Sybille Bonvin. "We would love to be linked to the Swiss Tennis Federation, but it doesn't like it's going to happen."

by Roy Probert


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