Why older athletes thrive in wheelchair tennis

Older athletes have come to grips with tennis like never before in the Open era in recent years. When younger players break through, it’s big news – and there’s always speculation about which newcomer will replace one of the old guard.

But the side of the sport known to most viewers isn’t even where you’ll find the oldest competitors. The elite athletes who play wheelchair tennis — which has been a part of every Grand Slam tournament since 2007 — are even older than the best athletes who use their legs to play the sport. There are, of course, still young players, including a top 10 men’s athlete who is only 15, but the career of ready athletes tends to be longer.

Wheelchair tennis is played on a court of the same dimensions as the able-bodied version, and besides the presence of wheelchairs the only notable difference in the rules is that the ball is allowed to bounce twice instead of just once. The sport is divided into two classes: open and quad. Athletes with permanent impairment of one or both legs but with full arm function are eligible for the open class, while quads are for athletes who have additional limitations in the playing arm that limit their ability to handle the racket and wheelchair. For example, many quad players will let the racket stick to their hand.

In both men’s and women’s singles, the average age of the current top 10 in wheelchair tennis is higher than in able-bodied tennis. The average for the top 10 in the quad division is even higher.

Wheelchair tennis players are older across the board

Average age of the current top 10 players* by division on the Uniqlo wheelchair tennis tour vs. the WTA and ATP tours

Average age Top 10
Wheelchair resilient difference.
Ladies 30.7 25.4 -5.3
Men 30.0 25.4 -4.6
Quadruple room** 36.8

*As of January 17.
**Athletes in the Quad division have significant disabilities that affect their playing arms.

Sources: UNIQLO, WTA, ATP

The question then is why?

Four-time Paralympic athlete Lucy Shuker of the United Kingdom – the oldest woman in the wheelchair division’s top 10 at 41 – spoke with Melbourne’s FiveThirtyEight, where she competes in the singles and doubles divisions at the Australian Open. She thinks part of the reason for the higher median age is that wheelchair tennis athletes have historically come to the sport later in life than their disabled counterparts — often through injury, as she did.

“In wheelchair tennis, unless you come through, maybe you had an accident at a very young age, or you were born with a disability, the normal path to the sport is you don’t follow the traditional route,” she said.

Shuker started playing after a motorcycle accident at age 21. She cited previous badminton training as part of her success, but said many athletes she sees are “coached in the sport”, rather than seen for their natural talents as healthy children.

Sarah Hunter, a retired Canadian Paralympic athlete and current provincial coach for British Columbia, was identified in a camp after an ice hockey injury shifted her focus from handling a lacrosse stick for the national team to handling a tennis racket.

“I tried a number of sports there, and tennis immediately caught my attention,” she said. “I absolutely loved it. … I was able to go straight into a very good program with an exceptional coach, and it just started. It just became a full-time gig for many years.” Seventeen to be exact, in a career that started in her mid-thirties and ended in 2017 after a serious back injury forced her to retire.

Hunter said she thought the trend of wheelchair tennis players getting older may be beginning to shift, in part because the types of disabilities that elite athletes have are beginning to change. While spinal cord injuries used to be more common in wheelchair players, more and more have congenital conditions or disabilities that occur earlier in life: Two-thirds of semifinal athletes in the singles divisions in the past two Paralympic Games had congenital conditions; that was true for only a third of the wheelchair tennis singles semifinalists who publicly declared their handicaps during the 2004 Olympics (the first for the quad division).

Hunter also believes that the sport’s greater intensity plays a part in why wheelchair tennis is getting younger. “It’s a different kind of wear and tear on the body,” she said. “I think you’ll see players retire much faster than they used to as the training gets more intense every quadrennial. There are higher expectations of the quality and number of tournaments an athlete has to play in.”

One of the biggest storylines in this year’s Australian Open is that it will be the last tournament for quad division leader Dylan Alcott, who has won seven consecutive titles in his native Melbourne. He will retire at 31, even though the average age of the current top 10 quad players is nearly six years older and his rivals are a pair of significantly older Americans, David Wagner and Bryan Barten, aged 47 and 48 respectively. 58-year-old Kyu-Seung Kim from South Korea.

In 2021, Alcott won the “golden slam” – all four Grand Slam tournaments plus the gold medal from the Olympics – as did the women’s top woman, Diede de Groot of the Netherlands, who is 25. But while those two stars dominated their divisions last year, their career win rates (82 percent for Alcott, 83 percent for de Groot) are comparable to those of the best players in the stand-up game: Rafael Nadal, for example, has a win rate of 83 percent.

The landscape for wheelchair tennis may be changing, for good reasons. “I think as the sport gets more popular and, you know, there’s prize money, there’s the grand slams, Paralympic medals,” Shuker said. “As it gets bigger in the media, I think it will naturally attract more players – and the younger players who are physically strong and want to get into the sport.”

But the participation of older wheelchair tennis athletes isn’t going to stop anytime soon, Shuker said.

“As a disabled sport, I think you will always have those people who may have come to the sport later in life as a result of an accident, like myself.”

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