This time last year, Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness (ASAF) wheelchair tennis team was in its infancy. The roster consisted of just two names — Caiden Baxter and Alex Saleh. While they had a clear vision for what they wanted the future of wheelchair tennis at Michigan to look like, that vision seemed painfully distant. Facility access and institutional support were hard to come by, a problem further exacerbated by the COVID-19 shutdown. From the outside, prospects for the year ahead looked bleak.
This week, however, marks a triumphant rebuttal of this assumption. On Thursday, the fourth-ranked Wolverines will be sending six athletes down to Orlando, Fla., to compete in the twentieth annual USTA Wheelchair Tennis Nationals — the team’s first ever organized competition.
This year’s tournament will host a record total of 27 athletes from nine universities, including wheelchair tennis heavyweights like Clemson, Alabama and San Diego State University. Match play will begin at noon on Thursday and conclude Sunday afternoon. The competition will be broken up into team and singles sections, with the singles section further subdivided into three tiers for players of different skill levels.
The experienced Chris Kelley will represent Michigan in Tier 1. The third-highest seeded player in the tournament, Kelley stands a significant chance at emerging from the field victorious, which would cement ASAF’s status as one of the nation’s elite wheelchair tennis programs. In addition to pursuing a singles title, Kelley will join forces with teammate and wheelchair tennis upstart Spencer Heslop in an attempt to bring home the overall team trophy. Primarily a basketball player, Heslop only began training competitively in tennis earlier this year. Despite his relative lack of experience, Heslop enters the tournament as Michigan’s third-highest ranked player and the tournament’s thirteenth-highest overall.
“I don’t really know what to expect at nationals,” Heslop said in an interview with The Daily. “I know that most matches I’ll be going into, I won’t be the most experienced. But because I love to compete, I’m going to give it my all.”
Heslop credits his rapid progress to two primary factors: his speed — a product of his experience as a basketball player — and the excellent teachings of his teammates and coaches.
“I’ve learned a ton,” Heslop said. “From (Kelley), from the coaches, they’ve really shaped a lot of what I’ve learned and tried to apply. … We’ve created an atmosphere that’s been conducive to growth and that’s been awesome.”
Heslop will compete individually in Tier 2 alongside teammates Baxter and Matt Fritzie. Saleh and program director Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, who will compete as an affiliate, will represent Michigan in Tier 3.
Baxter, despite being one of the founding members of Michigan’s team, has never had the opportunity to participate in an organized wheelchair tennis competition. In fact, Nationals will be the first time Baxter has been able to compete in any sporting event since he became a wheelchair user.
“I just remember how that it feels to go out on gameday, especially at a big tournament like this,” Baxter said. “I’m super excited after a year and a half of training to finally be able to go out and give it my all.”
Like Heslop, Baxter isn’t preoccupied with his or the team’s lack of experience.
“I think we stand a good chance to make it pretty far in the competition,” Baxter said. “I know how well we play, and as long as we stay focused, we should be able to pick on the other teams and make it pretty far.”
For months, the team has been training nearly every day of the week with their sights set on one goal — Nationals. As the tournament date has approached, the magnitude of the occasion has begun to set in for the players.
“It’s definitely gotten a little bit more tense,” Baxter said. “We made it a point to also have time outside of practice as a team to hang out together so that we can still have that balance. At the end of the day, we’re still friends, teammates, classmates, so we want to keep that dynamic even if we are very competitive at practice.”
While a trophy or two would certainly be a plus, the team’s participation in this tournament means far more than that for Baxter and Heslop.
“This is the first time we’re going to be out there,” Baxter said. “I hope to set the bar really high and to just help our program grow as people see what we’re able to do and what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past year while everything has been shut down. Trophy or not, I’m super excited to go out there and compete.”
Added Heslop: “Regardless of the outcome, I’ll be pleased if I feel like I gave it my all. In terms of significance, I think of the people who have made this possible and of the hours that we’ve all spent on the courts trying to get better. I can’t wait to put that on display.”
For ASAF, competing in Wheelchair Tennis Nationals stands as the program’s most visible step to date toward its goal of establishing equitable access to sports and physical activity for students with disabilities.
“I’ve been super grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given through adaptive sports growing up, but I know that’s not something everybody in my situation who has a disability has been able to do,” Heslop said. “So it’s really exciting to be able to be part of a program that’s started to open the door for kids like me growing up, who want to go to school and be able to continue to compete in sports.”
For those hoping to watch the competition, ASAF will be hosting a livestream on its website that will showcase some of the matches.