Ten thousand steps and more. They practice some of the most spectacular tennis, and are finally gaining recognition. For the first time in the history of Roland-Garros, wheelchair tennis players played their match on the Philippe-Chatrier court. It was in this mythical arena that the ladies’ final between the number 1 and 2 seeds, the Dutch Diede de Groot and the Japanese Yui Kamiji, was played out on Saturday April 4 at the end of the morning. Diede de Groot won (6-4, 6-1), pocketing, at 25, his third title on Parisian clay. The two players also face each other in the final of the women’s wheelchair tennis doubles.

On the men’s side, the Japanese Shingo Kunieda (38), legend of wheelchair tennis, already holder of seven titles at Roland-Garros in singles in his category, overcame the Argentinian Gustavo Fernandez, ten years his junior. , in three sets (6-2, 5-7, 7-5), after more than two and a half hours of play.

The day before, the two men had already shown their talent to the public (too sparse) of the Chatrier, by winning together the semi-final of the men’s doubles, against the French pair Stéphane Houdet – Nicolas Peifer, on the score of 7-6, 6-1. In the final, the Argentinian and the Japanese are opposed to a British duo, Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid.

Exchanges, good humor and frank laughter

Beyond this better spotlighting of wheelchair competitors (which was also reflected during the 2022 edition of Roland-Garros by a greater number of participants in the ladies’ and men’s singles events: 12 against 8 up to here), the tournament was, as in recent years, the opportunity to make the discipline more widely known, with a discovery day “All in a wheelchair”.

This Friday, June 3, a stone’s throw from Suzanne-Lenglen, on the clay court of court number 9, transformed into four mini-courts, many came to try their hand at wheelchair tennis: children and adults of all ages, able-bodied or have a disability.

The opportunity for exchanges in every sense of the word, in a good mood and sometimes even a good laugh. Some master the gestures of tennis, but struggle to manage the wheelchair at the same time to go to the ball, while others twirl with their everyday “vehicle”, but are a little borrowed with a tennis racket.

“Racket in hand,” reminds one of the teachers present to a youngster, who had the reflex to put it on his knees while he pushed his chair with both hands to move towards the ball. We quickly understand the interest of a possible second rebound, the main particularity of wheelchair tennis in terms of rules.

Coordination and precision

For this day, the French Tennis Federation (FFT), which has been managing the activity since 2017, had issued some 300 invitations, including 50 people in wheelchairs and as many people with reduced mobility (PRM), but without a wheelchair. On court number 9, there are groups of adults and children from rehabilitation services or specialized establishments or schools, but also middle school students with their teacher, ordinary spectators who have come to see the day’s matches and are curious to test this other tennis…

Inès (who did not wish to give her last name), 51, a tennis fan and paraplegic since an accident in 2003, will also try wheelchair tennis for the first time. “I hope to get started then, finally… if I find an accessible club not too far from my home, because transport remains complicated”, she underlines. Inès would also like to show her 7-year-old daughter that “people with reduced mobility can play sports”.

Amputees, paraplegics, individuals with muscular diseases… wheelchair tennis is intended for people with functional impairment of the lower limbs that does not allow standing practice. There is a quad category, for players who also have upper limb damage. The profiles of the practitioners are varied. “Some played tennis before the onset of their disability, others started after, but they are often sports enthusiasts, tennis enthusiasts,” summarizes Bénédicte Fravalo, head of paratennis (combining wheelchair tennis and tennis for the deaf and hard of hearing ) and its development at the FFT.

Many wheelchair tennis players, champions or anonymous, testify to this: this sport has literally changed their lives. Other advantages, mentioned by Bénédicte Fravalo: it is an activity where you have to be on the move all the time and which requires a lot of coordination and precision… to manage blows while moving around in a wheelchair.

“Get Practitioners”

Technical gestures also require adaptation, in particular to reduce the risk of injury to the shoulders, which are very stressed in wheelchair tennis. Another potential brake: the activity requires an ad hoc wheelchair, with angled wheels (to increase stability) and small anti-tip wheels. The price is at least 2,000 euros, but the FFT helps clubs to equip themselves and subsidies are possible in certain cases.

“Currently, of the 7,300 French tennis clubs, 130 are referenced in wheelchair tennis. The goal is not for them all to be, but for practice to be possible throughout the territory, in an adapted and accessible club, with trained teachers, ”underlines Bénédicte Fravalo. In terms of practitioners, the development manager mentions 300 male competitors and 40 female competitors of all levels, with an increase of 35% in four years. The number of recreational practitioners would also be around 300.

“The major challenges are to develop competitions and leisure practices, by giving more visibility to our sport and by seeking out practitioners, argues multi-medal winner Michaël Jeremiasz. Encouraging sports practices among people with disabilities is a matter of public health, and also of creating social ties. At a minimum, we should have thousands of licensees in France. »

On the competition side, the former champion and consultant to France Télévisions for Roland-Garros is counting on the French Riviera Open, one of the most prestigious wheelchair tennis tournaments (from June 7 to 12, at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, near Nice) that he manages, to shine the spotlight on the best players in the world and to encourage vocations.