Match Points in Forest Park: A Visit to the 2018 USTA Wheelchair Championships at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center

Five dollars may not take you far these days — unless you want to watch the best wheelchair tennis players in the world compete at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park.

August 28-September 2 marked the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Open U.S. Tennis Association Wheelchair Championships, held this year — as they have been every year since 2009 — at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park, located near the Missouri History Museum and the Dennis & Judith Jones Visitor and Education Center.

“The championships are in August except for every fourth year, when they move to October because many of the players are competing in the Paralympics over the summer,” said Jackie Koltz, secretary/treasurer of the Gateway Confluence Wheelchair Sports Foundation, the nonprofit organization that hosts the event.

The tournament is one of four International Tennis Foundation Super Series events held annually worldwide and one of only two in North America. The players compete for a $40,000 purse and points that earn them the right to compete in the Paralympics.

“The players come from all over the world, and it’s just like the U.S. Open in New York,” Koltz said. “The only difference is, wheelchair players can take an extra bounce if they need it to make a shot. Other than that, it’s exactly the same.”

Players compete as recreational “lettered players” and professional singles, doubles and quads, Koltz explains. The professional players are elite athletes, complete with corporate sponsorships, personal trainers and sports medicine specialists.

Gateway Confluence President Greg Gelzinnis notes the organization had good reason for choosing the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park.

“The facility has eighteen courts, is centrally located and is really nice, with no divots or cracks that could interfere with play,” Gelzinnis says. “The surroundings are so beautiful, thanks to Forest Park Forever and the St. Louis City Parks Department. The Dwight Davis Tennis Center Board has made important improvements over the years, like widening walkways, adding more ADA-accessible restrooms and improving the lighting.”

The improved lighting was especially important this year. An 11-hour rain delay on August 29 caused play to continue until 11 p.m. that night — but the players were on the courts at 9 a.m. the next day.

Japan’s Shingo Kunieda is one of those players. A 10-year U.S. Open veteran, he is the number 1 ranked men’s wheelchair player in the world, having competed four times in the Paralympics. He holds two gold medals for singles play, one gold medal for doubles play and two bronze medals for doubles.

“People are very kind here, and the surroundings are wonderful!” Shingo said. “I enjoy being in Forest Park as I push over from the Parkway Hotel, and I hope to get away and see the Saint Louis Zoo while I’m here.”

“The Dwight Davis staff has done a great job, even staying here late into the night during the rain delay,” added Shingo’s coach, Tasuku Iwami. “And the more people who come to see us play, the more fun it is.”

Koltz added that the players’ accessibility is just one of many reasons to attend the tournament.

“We’ve built relationships with all of the players over the years,” she says. “They are so wonderful and down-to-earth. You can just walk up and talk to them, but when you do, you’d never know they are the most elite athletes in the world — until you see them play.”

Stay in touch with Forest Park Forever online to be alerted if and when the 2019 championships return to Forest Park.