Dave Wagner will be back in Rome this week to try and win a wheelchair tennis championship that eluded him a year ago. This year’s competition is set to begin Wednesday.
Wagner, who is ranked number two in the world of professional wheelchair tennis, lost in the championships of the inaugural Georgia Open in Rome last year to his friend and occasional doubles partner Bryan Barton, who will be back to defend.
Wagner was injured playing in the surf on the beach at Redondo, California in 1995.
“I got tossed around by a wave and landed wrong on my neck,” Wagner said. “That snapped my neck so it was kind of a fluky, freaky accident that paralyzed me and turned me into a quadriplegic.”
At one point, Wagner made an international table tennis team and saw an ad in Sports and Spokes (the Sports Illustrated for para-athletes according to Wagner) for a wheelchair tennis clinic and decided to give it a try.
He was living in Walla Walla, Washington at the time and drove all the way to Portland, Oregon for the clinic and got hooked during the event put on by Randy Snow, Dan James and Rick Draney — the pioneers of wheelchair tennis in the U.S.
“I was really lucky to get to learn from them right off the bat,” Wagner said. “It can be challenging learning the patterns and the way to push the chair while you have the racket in your hand,” Wagner said. “The reality is that we all use a chair for everyday life so it’s not like we came out and jumped in a chair and it became natural. It take a lot of work and a lot of dedication to focus on it.”
Competition chairs are very specialized.
“It’s really dialed in to our body. It’s likes a good pair of sneakers, they can help add traction, stability, angular support and all of that,” Wagner said. “Pushing a tennis chair is not a whole lot different, you’re just chasing a little yellow fuzzy ball around instead of going down the hallway or something.”
Wagner competes in between 15 and 20 events a year and has participated in the Australian, U.S. and British Opens. This year will be his first at the French Open. He’s been playing since 1999 and played his first tournament in 2001
“There’s no real gimme’s anymore. Wheelchair tennis has taken on a whole new level of training,” Wagner said, adding that tournaments have been getting bigger and bigger as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games draw near as more and more players are hoping to be selected for that prestigious competition.