By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
Every Tuesday evening David Harrison grabs his racquet and wheels onto tennis court No. 9 at Patch Reef Park.
He locates a roll of duct tape from his bag and begins taping the racquet to his hand. An injury has left him with limited mobility. He then hits a tennis ball against the wall. He hits a second in nearly the exact same spot. He nods that his tape job is sufficient for play.
It is part of a ritual he has done every week since 1999. Harrison has played all types of wheelchair sports, but tennis stuck.
His doubles partner Nick Williams also arrived early to the Tuesday clinic. The two have played in wheelchair tennis programs in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton.
They recently took home their third doubles championship title in their division during an Easter tournament.
“We don’t miss and we get here early,” Williams said of the Tuesday night tennis clinics. “I do whatever I can to make it. I look forward to it.”
He was 16 when he was in a car accident in 2008. The athlete said he didn’t lose his competitive drive just because he was in a wheelchair. He tried wheelchair basketball and adaptive volleyball. But after he played in a wheelchair tennis tournament, that his friend told him about, he knew he found his sport.
“I got addicted and have been playing ever since,” he said. “The best way to get good at a sport is to play it. The tournaments have been a fun way to compete again.”
The program at Patch Reef Tennis Center was recently named the 2017 United States Tennis Association’s Local Grassroots Wheelchair Tennis Program of the Year.
The award is granted to programs that promote and develop the growth of wheelchair tennis and use the sport of tennis to help build stronger, healthier communities.
Harrison and Williams warmed up together before they were joined by their coach Jim Tierney and two others players.
Tierney began going through drills with the players. They hit forehand and backhand. They hit long shots and short shots. They maneuvered their chairs across the court in time to return fast serves.
The rules are the same with one exception: the players have two bounces. During tournaments, competitors are matched against people with similar skills, but during clinics everyone plays together.
“It’s fun to see how you progress and get better,” Williams said. “I remember a few years ago, I couldn’t hit a back hand. In the tournament I just played in, I hit a killer one.”
Tierney said after the clinic is over, most of the players will stay and play until the courts close.
“It’s a great group,” he said. “Everyone is really welcoming.”
Boca’s wheelchair tennis program began over 20 years ago, Tierney said.
It was when U.S. Wheelchair Sports Hall of Famer and Paralympic athlete, Bruce Karr, also known as “The Godfather” of wheelchair tennis, organized the first wheelchair tennis tournament for Palm Beach County players at Patch Reef’s tennis courts.
Now, Patch Reef Tennis Center Administrator Tierney leads the tournaments and clinics.
“Jim stepped up in a big way for the wheelchair tennis program,” Karr said. “He was and still is such a helpful guy who took such interest in this program and has been so supportive and engaged in the process of continuing to build it up.”
Tierney took the program a step further by joining the United States Tennis Association where he currently sits on the board for the wheelchair tennis program. He has since hosted two annual USTA sanctioned wheelchair tennis tournaments: the South Florida Open Wheelchair Championships and the South Florida Open Winter Wheelchair Championship.
“Members in the community who are familiar with wheelchair tennis have embraced it and are often ardent supporters such as the many volunteers who assist the tournaments and round robins. Typically, anyone that experiences wheelchair tennis for the first time is hooked and often returns. The challenge is to get the word out to those that have not experienced the skills, desire, and competitiveness of wheelchair athletes. We encourage our community to come and support these talented players and events,” he said.
Free weekly clinics take place from 5:30-8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. A monthly Up/Down round robin takes place the first Tuesday of each month, which pairs able-bodied players with wheelchair players. The next one will take place on May 1.
For more information, please visit www.patchreefpark.org or call 561-367-7090.