As the wheelchair championships get under way, the sport is enjoying a surge in status as never before.
Increased prize money, a new sponsorship deal and a return to the Olympic Park for the NEC Wheelchair Singles Masters in November are among the highlights of what is proving to be a major period in wheelchair tennis’ brief history. Yet, the rapid rise of the sport stretches beyond the lawns of SW19 or the clay of Roland Garros.
The Wheelchair Tennis Development Fund, winner of the 2013 Sport Accord Spirit of Sport Awards, is now working within 40 countries including Brazil, Morocco and Fiji in an attempt to promote the game. A new three-year sponsorship deal with UNIQLO will support more than 160 tournaments on the Wheelchair Tennis Tour while an increase of more than 30 percent in prize money is at stake at Wimbledon this year.
“I think it says a lot,” says Mark Bullock, Wheelchair Tennis Manager at the International Tennis Federation. “It speaks volumes of the way Grand Slams and the All England Club view wheelchair tennis. If it merits that increase in prize money then it’s great news for the players and the sport because it brings credibility.
“A company like UNIQLO who wants to be the biggest fashion brand in the world, linked with a young, up-and-coming part of tennis like us for three years gives us integrity and also links us to players in the game like Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori.
“We’re excited about going into the Olympic Park for the Masters, the venue we used for the Paralympics, because it has the potential to take the sport to another level with the legacy of the Games, spectator and media interest.”
After a recent visit to Haiti, the Development Fund has been established as an integral part of the global progression of wheelchair tennis. “The range of countries is enormous,” he adds. “We are putting tennis equipment into rehabilitation centres while we are also providing wheelchairs and attempting to get wheelchair tennis off the ground. It’s a very exciting part of our work.”
British No.1 Jordanne Whiley added that it is pleasing to see players getting rewarded for all their hard work in the sport. “It’s events like these where we get to play at Wimbledon and it’s on television and people actually get to watch on court that’s what really gets the word around about wheelchair tennis,” she says.
“I really like to promote our sport. It’s always nice to see new sponsors come in and see that this is our full time job and we’re working just as hard as the able-bodied players. It’s going in the right direction and hopefully by Rio 2016, everybody will know who the wheelchair tennis players are.”
Whiley opened her Wimbledon campaign alongside Japan’s Yui Kamiji with a 6-0, 6-2 victory over the two-time SW19 champion Sharon Walraven and former finalist Katharina Kruger on Court 17 in just 53 minutes. The No.1 seeds, who are looking for their third consecutive Grand Slam title, will meet former Calendar-Slam champions Aniek Van Koot and Jiske Griffioen after they dispatched Brit Lucy Shuker and Sabine Ellerbrock of Germany 6-1, 6-0.
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