Wheelchair tennis clinic grooms next generation of players

WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) -- Wichita has quickly become the unofficial wheelchair tennis capital, with some of the world's best players calling it home.

Eventually the veterans need to groom a new crop of talent, and that includes one able-bodied coach, Justin DeSanto, who has put himself in the chair to gain perspective and become a better coach in the process.

"It's a lot different," he said. "But the toughest part of it all is movement. Nick took it easy on me today and he put balls near me. But if he wanted to he would put them away from me and I wouldn't have been getting anywhere close to them."

He's referring to Nick Taylor, three-time Paralympic gold medalist. The two battled it out on the court of the Wichita Tennis Open in a wheelchair tennis exhibition match.

"It is always entertaining for the crowd, that's why we do it, to take somebody that they all know is a very good able-bodied player and able-bodied coach, and put him in a wheelchair, and show how tough it really is," Taylor said. "Put a little perspective to it."

Perspective is also what DeSanto is trying to gain. While he typically coaches able-bodied athletes at Wichita State University, his biggest challenge is learning to play wheelchair tennis to better teach his other pupils.

"It was really difficult and I know that even more now because I played against my players both in wheelchairs, my WSU players and those are guys I don't beat," he said. "And I beat them in wheelchair tennis just because they were in there for the first time and I was in for maybe my eighth."

Taylor understands the sport's difficulty, but he's looking to find the next generation of talent. After turning former Maize High grad Casey Ratzlaff into a world champion in the Men's Division, he's up for the next challenge.

Taylor and DeSanto hosted a kids clinic during the Wichita Open to gather interest with the hope to find the next Casey.

"I think they're able to watch me and go hey if he can do it with his disability then I can do it too," Taylor said.

It's easy for the kids to see themselves in Taylor and Ratzlaff, but it's DeSanto's connection that completes the coaching puzzle.

"I'm just a tennis coach so it doesn't really matter if it's wheelchair tennis or able bodied tennis, college, high school. I mean I've coached at every level and I don't really see the difference," DeSanto said. "It's coaching tennis and it's coaching people. So it's just finding out what works for them and how they're gonna progress, and that's what it's all about."

DeSanto, Taylor, and former world champion Grady Landrum will host the 2019 Air Capital Classic Wheelchair Tennis tournament and camp.

The all-comers camp runs from June 26-28 at Wichita State University with the tournament running June 28-30.