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Wheelchair tennis championships return to Boca Raton

April 9, 2008 12:43 PM

By Mario Sarmento
SPORTS EDITOR
Boca News.com

The 18th annual Florida Open International Wheelchair Tennis Championships return to Patch Reef Park Wednesday-Sunday, and the event has a local element to it.  Boca Raton residents John Becker, Julie Dorsett and Steve Barber will be competing, as will Delray Beach resident Jan Proctor.

“It’s close to my house,” said Becker, who won the second draw doubles championship with partner Anthony Lara last year. “There’s a bunch I look forward to, but yeah, it’s one of them.”

Becker, 40, is originally from New York. He moved to Boca Raton 12 years ago to attend FAU, and he has been here ever since.  For the last 10 years, he has competed in the open at Patch Reef, his home court that he practices at regularly.  Last year he and Lara played in one of their first tournaments together at the open, and to Becker’s surprise, they ran through the field for the victory.

“It was pretty good,” he said.  “I haven’t won like that in awhile.”

It was Becker’s best-ever finish at the open, having failed to reach the quarterfinals in singles play.  This week, Becker will team with new partner Shane Theroit for the first time at the event. Theroit sought Becker out and said he wanted to play with him.

“Hopefully we can repeat,” he said.

Becker is also in the midst of revamping his game.

“I’m still aggressive, but I used to hit the ball harder,” he said. “I’m trying to hit it with the angles.”

He’ll try that new style this week. Becker is again entered in the second draw of the men’s open division.  How he got into tennis was purely incidental.

Becker was watching his girlfriend play at Patch Reef Park over a decade ago when he came upon some wheelchair tennis players. They asked him if he wanted to play, he tried, and to his surprise, he liked it.  He said the most difficult aspect he had to learn was “moving with a racquet in my hand.”  Becker spent a year working on his game before he started playing in tournaments.  Then, after four years, he graduated to the open division.

Last year, he played in only 7-8 tournaments because of burnout, but this year he’s looking for positive results from the changes he’s made to his game.  Becker works by trading stocks at home, and has a horse racing partnership with a friend.  Beyond that, he plays at Patch Reef three times a week for 2-3 hours a day, then works out at the gym for another 2-3 hours.

He’s discontinued his practice of playing with able-bodied people because, he said, “the ball comes back at you differently from an able-bodied person.”

The favorite in the men’s open division is last year’s champion, Japan’s Shingo Kuneida, who in a short time has become the No. 1 player in the world, supplanting the Netherlands’ Robin Ammerlaan, who is currently second and France’s Michael Jeremiasz, the No. 3 player.

“I don’t think that’s a very extreme edge,” Florida Open Wheelchair Tennis media relations director Dick Yerg said. “He just happens to have a slight edge now.”

On the women’s side, there’s no doubt who the top player is.   Esther Vergeer of the Netherlands has won 311 consecutive matches dating back to 2002, including this year’s Australian Open and Sydney Open.

“She’s just superior to everybody else in all aspects of the game,” Yerg said.  Vergeer has a bye for the first two days and won’t play her first match until Thursday at 9:30 a.m. The men all start play on Tuesday at 8 a.m.

All matches conclude by 7 p.m. There is no admission charge for the five-day event.

 

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