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TENNIS: Georgia Open wheelchair tennis tournament starts today

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Ann Hortman, director of the Rome Sports Commission, said she saw a void that was created when the Atlanta Open wheelchair event folded about five years ago and started the process of bringing a similar professional event to Rome.

Gustavo Fernandez, from Argentina, said to be competitive on the world tour you have to play every tournament and he was looking forward to the addition of the Georgia Open to the tour.

Fernandez, the No. 2-ranked wheelchair tennis player in the world, was afflicted with a spinal infraction at 18 months of age and comes from a sporting family.  His father and brother were both professional basketball players and he decided at an early age that tennis was the sport he would pursue.

“I always dreamed of being a professional like my father and my brother,” Fernandez said. He’s been playing for about 18 years and is playing at the highest level at the age of 24.

Fernandez was a competitor in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and won the 2017 Australian Open wheelchair men’s singles title.

Emmy Kaiser, from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, is a veteran of two Paralympics playing for the United States’ team. She took a year off after the Rio Games.  Kaiser was born with spina bifida and said she tried just about everything growing up.

“Tennis just clicked,” Kaiser said.

She’s been on the professional wheelchair tour for more than 10 years and represented the U.S. at the London Paralympic Games in 2012, prior to Rio.

“Everybody’s talking about how great it is here for a tournament,” Kaiser said.

“The Rome Tennis Center was built above ADA standards,” Hortman said. “In addition to being the largest hard court facility (in the U.S.) we are the largest facility that is fully accessible."

Satoshi Saida, the 28th-ranked player in the world from Japan, was stricken by a cancer-like disease when he was 12 years old. “I got it above the knee,” Saida said. He ultimately lost his left leg to the disease but didn’t let that stop him from enjoying a sporting life. He turned to tennis about three years ago after trying out wheelchair basketball.

Saida is part of a large delegation from Japan in Rome this week and is playing in the men’s main draw. He won a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Paralympics in doubles with countryman Shingo Kunieda.

Daniel Caverzaschi, from Spain, the 14th-ranked player in the world, also suffered a disability at birth and has been playing tennis for the past nine years. He competed in the 2012 London Paralympics as well as the 2016 games in Rio.

“I tried tennis when I was like 11 or 12 and I liked it,” Caverzaschi said. He said there is very little difference between the wheelchair tour and the ATP tour with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“You have similar lives. You are traveling the same amount of weeks almost. Tennis is a tough sport, physically, psychologically, but that’s what makes it so special and great,” Caverzaschi said.

$32,000 in prize money will be split between the top competitors in the men’s and women’s open draws as well as the quad competition.  

Play begins this morning and continues through the weekend.