Cover photo – “Wheelchair Tennis” by Edwin Martinez1 licensed under CC BY 2.0
The 2020 US Open Wheelchair Competition was one of the first adaptive sporting events to take place since the Coronavirus pandemic began. 20 athletes competed from September 10-13 across six divisions – Men’s, Women’s, and Quad’s Singles and Doubles.
It has been an interesting (or absolutely insane) ride to get to this point. As the Coronavirus pandemic raged on, the USTA announced in mid June that they would push forward with the US Open except without fans, Juniors, or Wheelchair athletes. Coronavirus has thus far caused the cancellation or postponement of many events including the 2020 Paralympics and well over 100 UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour events, so even an outright cancellation wouldn’t have been surprising. Outrage sparked though when it became clear that adaptive athletes were not consulted on this decision like their able-bodied counterparts were. Facing criticism, mainly from Quads star, Dylan Alcott, the USTA finally met with adaptive athletes virtually and reversed course setting the stage for a 2020 Wheelchair Competition.
Quick note before we get to the action – the only major difference in Wheelchair Tennis is the ball can bounce twice between hits. This allows players to keep volleys going longer and spreads the court out significantly, leading to some pretty incredible long-distance shots. Other than that, this is the same intense sport we saw Osaka and Thiem crush in the traditional US Open.
The biggest star in Men’s Wheelchair Tennis in 2019 was Gustavo Fernandez, who came away with Grand Slam wins in France, Australia, and at Wimbledon last year. He came in hungry for his first US Open win, but 2020 wasn’t his year in New York either. Fernandez passed by Stephane Houdet in straight sets in the quarter finals to meet 2x defending champion Alfie Hewett in the semis. Fernandez seemed to remain rather stationary, attempting to place powerful shots across the court, but it was no match for Alfie Hewett gracefully sliding around the court.
Hewett would face off with Shingo Kunieda in the finals. Kunieda is far and away the most prolific Men’s player ever with half of all US Open Singles titles to his name (six of twelve!). Needless to say, Hewett had his work cut out for him. They split the first two sets and went back and forth in the third. Kunieda opted to play closer to the net forcing Hewett near the wall. The third set went down to a tie breaker with Kunieda edging out the win.
Also of note, Casey Ratzlaff made his first US Open appearance as the sole American in Men’s Singles and Doubles. Ratzlaff won his first set but lost 2-1 in the first round to Belgian, Joachim Gerard.
- (1) S. Kunieda def. N. Peifer 2-0 (6-3, 6-2)
- J. Gerard def. C. Ratzlaff 2-1 (4-6, 6-3, 6-0)
- A. Hewett def. G. Reid 2-0 (6-0, 6-2)
- (1) G. Fernandez def. S. Houdet 2-0 (6-4, 6-1)
- (1) S. Kunieda def. J. Gerard 2-1 (4-6, 6-1, 6-3)
- A. Hewett def. (2) G. Fernandez 2-1 (6-4, 1-6, 6-3)
- (1) S. Kunieda def. A. Hewett 2-1 (6-3, 3-6, 7-6)
Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid teamed up like usual for doubles. They’ve won the last three US Opens together and they wouldn’t let a crazy 2020 get in the way of a fourth. The British compatriots defeated Gustavo Fernandez and Shingo Kunieda in straight sets in the semifinals and would do the same in the final against last year’s Masters champions, Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer.
- (1) Hewett/Reid def. Fernandez/Kunieda 2-0 (6-3, 6-3)
- (2) Houdet/Peifer def. Gerard/Ratzlaff 2-0 (6-2, 6-1)
- (1) Hewett/Reid def. (2) Houdet/Peifer 2-0 (6-4, 6-1)
The top seeds in the Women’s Singles bracket were Diede De Groot and Yuji Kamiji, same as in 2019. But the most exciting aspect was seeing two of eight in the field making their first ever Grand Slam debuts. Momoko Ohtani had a tough quarterfinal matchup against Kamiji in her first Slam. Kamiji shut her down in the first set but it was much closer in the second with Ohtani forcing a tiebreaker before being knocked out.
Angelica Bernal, also in her first Grand Slam, would have the same fate as Ohtani one round later. Bernal recently won the 2019 Para Pan American Games representing Colombia and will do the same at the 2021 Paralympics. Bernal defeated Lucy Shuker in the quarterfinals 2-1, but had less luck against Kamiji in the semis, losing in straight sets.
In the finals, Yui Kamiji faced off against Diede De Groot for the fourth year in a row. Kamiji and De Groot are nearly in a league of their own in women’s singles as one of them has won all but one Grand Slam since the start of 2017. The volleys they smack back and forth are incredible to watch. Each point seems to just barely sneak by the other player. Kamiji took the first Slam of 2020 at the Australian Open in January, but the US Open title would go to De Groot for her third straight win.
- (1) D. De Groot def. J. Whiley 2-0 (6-3, 6-4)
- M. Buis def. D. Mathewson 2-0 (6-2, 6-1)
- A. Bernal def. L Shuker 2-1 (4-6, 6-3, 6-3)
- (2) Y. Kamiji def. M. Ohtani 2-0 (6-2, 7-6)
- (1) D. De Groot def. (2) Y. Kamiji 2-0 (6-3, 6-3)
Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley may have been the second seed in Doubles, but they were clearly the dominant pairing in the Women’s bracket. Kamiji and Whiley took home the title with two sound straight set wins – first over Bernal and Dana Mathewson (the only female US player present), then over the Dutch pairing of Marjolein Buis and Diede De Groot in the final. This is their second Grand Slam title this year after the Australian Open this January. They won’t have a chance at Wimbledon this year due to cancellation, but will go for the sweep in France in October.
- (1) Buis/De Groot def. Ohtani/Shuker 2-0 (6-0, 6-1)
- (2) Kamiji/Whiley def. Bernal/Mathewson 2-0 (6-2, 6-1)
- (2) Kamiji/Whiley def. (1) Buis/De Groot 2-0 (6-3, 6-3)
The Quad tournaments are the newest addition to the Grand Slams although the US Open was the first to adopt the classification back in 2007. The difference here is that Quad players have impairments that affect at least one upper limb whereas other Wheelchair players may only have lower body impairments such as an amputation or injury.
As he won yet another Australian Open earlier this year and led the online debate surrounding the cancellation and reinstatement of the Open, we figured this would be Dylan Alcott’s tournament. It looked that way at first with Alcott going 3-0 in the round robin stage, but he faltered in the final against newbie, Sam Schröder. Schröder is only 20 years old but was already the 5th ranked Quads player in the world coming in to 2020. That can only improve with a US Open win in his first appearance.
Round Robin Results
- S. Schröder def. D. Alcott 2-1 (7-6, 0-6, 6-4)
Due to the small field, the Quad Doubles tournament runs for just one round. There were plans to expand Quads from four players to eight but due to COVID-19 this has been pushed back to next year. Alcott and Andy Lapthorne paired up to take on Schröder and veteran David Wagner.
Schröder and Wagner put up a good fight, taking the first set and forcing a tie-breaker in the third, but Alcott and Lapthorne were able to sneak away with the doubles title, Alcott’s second, Lapthorne’s fourth straight.
- (1) Alcott/Lapthorne def. (2) Schröder/Wagner 2-1 (4-6, 6-3, 10-8)
So are adaptive sports back? No, not by a long shot. Especially not in the US where we are still buried deep in social distancing and event restrictions. Many local organizations have reduced capacity, transitioned to virtual events, or shut down completely for now. But just like with the NFL starting back up, we can find a small amount of solace in watching these elite athletes at the top of their game. While we don’t want to rush it, we can take the outbreak-less US Open as evidence that, if done with proper precautions, international sporting events can occur. If all goes well, next up is the French Open, October 7-10!