“My Journey into Wheelchair Tennis”

My Journey into Wheelchair Tennis

It was a Wednesday in November 2017, I was setting up on the far indoor court when I saw someone in a wheelchair have a quick look round the first indoor court, so it was no surprise when I finished for the day that there was a message to give Antony Cotterill a ring. This was our first ever wheelchair enquiry and whilst exciting, I knew that we knew nothing or at least very little about wheelchair tennis.

The conversation is one I will never forget; it began with a request for a lesson and quickly progressed to enquiring about the possibility of moving his programme to the club. I asked “how many hours is that? To which he replied, “about 20.” It was becoming very clear that I was already out of my depth and as the conversation continued it turned out that not only did this guy called Antony play a lot but travelled internationally competing in both singles and doubles and was for some reason keen to play and be coached at Thongsbridge.

I assured Antony that despite us being absolute novices in the world of wheelchair tennis, we were a team of coaches that would be prepared to learn to support his development and that we should meet to discuss his requirements.

No sooner had I said goodbye I was on google thinking this could be some sort of wind up, but equally if it wasn’t why would he want to come to Thongsbridge?

As I looked at my phone, it became apparent that I had just been talking to Antony Cotterill who had both a singles and doubles world ranking in the top 10, regularly played for Great Britain and just for good measure played at the Paralympics in Rio.

So, the next step was to meet Antony and discuss creating what Antony referred to as a world class training programme with a view to representing GB in Tokyo. There were other goals too like winning doubles masters and maintaining a certain ranking to keep funding levels etc. I kept reminding Antony that we knew nothing about wheelchair tennis, and this was going to be a tough journey for us all to embark on. He just kept telling me not to worry, he would help us, and all would be fine!!

The facts are that he lived local, we had nothing more to offer than an indoor centre and a reasonable reputation as a coaching team and that is how it all began.

It wasn’t long after we started working together that I went down to the NTC to watch for a day. What an experience, what an education, not so much what I learned but just how good everyone was, the level was amazing and the fact they get two bounces, but mostly only use one.

In the early days together, Antony, Rob and I would have a goal to achieve but it took some time to understand how we would get there. Rob & I would describe what we wanted to achieve for Antony and his tennis, and he would then translate that into a process of how we could pursue it.

The first couple of years were a little fraught with an influx of “more able” or players with more “function” entering the division and creating competitive pressure on Antony’s ranking.

We could see his ranking drop and drop and that created its own pressure for us as a team. This made our challenge to help Antony (as beginner coaches) feel tougher as we had many ideas to improve, some worked well but many were just not manageable, couldn’t be applied or had the opposite effect and made him play worse; the trouble was all this took time and sometimes we felt we were going backwards.
On reflection and something we began to understand more and more was that he was improving, he was becoming a better tennis player, but the level was rising all the time with strong players entering the division. I think from memory when we started Antony was 6 in the world at singles and within two years, we had propelled him to 24, I told you we were beginners!!

We were in a downward spiral of losing more, not defending ranking points well enough, ranking was dropping, and then first round draws were now largely against one of the top 4 seeds. We needed to change the game plan.

We had some good honest planning sessions breaking everything down into much smaller, more achievable chunks to determine a way forward and I accompanied Antony to more events. We charted every point of every match and through this analysis we could see exactly what went well and what didn’t at exactly what point.

Along with some smart tournament planning, working on the data generated we started to make some good progress back up the rankings with a realistic Tokyo target of between 10-12 in the world for automatic qualification.

When Covid started to slow things down Antony had reached a ranking of 12 and was on a really good run of playing well and winning matches especially the ones that he could win and should win.

It has been a pleasure to work with Antony, who never complains, never makes excuses, always looks on the bright side and always tries to find a way to get better and better.

Fingers crossed Antony realises his next dream in Tokyo!!

Nick Fitzpatrick

Thongsbrideg Tennis & Fitness