Sporting talents that fate’s intervention couldn’t deny
Stories of Paralympians Stephane Houdet and Gordon Reid share common themes
Gordon Reid: Wimbledon wheelchair champion Gordon Reid is hoping to emulate fellow Scot Andy Murray by adding a gold medal to his first success at SW19. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Gordon Reid: Wimbledon wheelchair champion Gordon Reid is hoping to emulate fellow Scot Andy Murray by adding a gold medal to his first success at SW19. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire
The mercury has climbed into the 30s by lunchtime and the high banked stands mimic a colosseum, although the gladiators in this case are the wheelchair tennis players, who pivot and pirouette with surprising grace to supplement the more technical qualities of the sport.
Centre Court is an impressive edifice, arguably the most striking at the Olympic Park in Rio. Despite the presence of the number one seed, France’s Stephane Houdet, and, in the next match on court, Scot Gordon Reid, two places behind in the tournament rankings, the stadium is largely empty, in contrast with its noisy, colourful night-time persona.
There is one main difference in the rules that distinguishes wheelchair tennis from its able-bodied sibling: the ball may bounce twice, even if the second one is outside the confines of the court. It’s a small accommodation.
Houdet (45) and Reid (24) may have a sizeable gap between them in age terms, but there is a common theme to their backgrounds: both were excellent junior players before fate intervened.
The Frenchman decided to study veterinary science at college, but in 1996, while on a motorbike tour of the European capitals with a fellow undergraduate, he crashed. It would take eight years before he had a leg amputated above the knee.
“When you fall so far down, as I did, you have only two options: you go back or you die. I needed to find the sportsman in me again,” he said.
He chose golf, playing on the World Golf Tour for the Disabled with great success, but a chance meeting with retired Dutch soccer superstar Johann Cruyff at a pro-am in 2003 would nudge him in the direction of tennis.
The Cruyff Foundation is a partner of the Wheelchair Tennis Development Fund. Two things cemented Houdet’s future sporting path: the amputation, and a decision in 2005 to drop golf from the 2012 London Paralympics. Houdet, who become a vet, said: “[Tennis] became my new dream.”
Twice a winner of the French Open, he has also triumphed at the US Open and has completed a Grand Slam in doubles.
In Paralympics terms, his first gold medal was in the doubles at Beijing (2008), and in serendipitous circumstances he bumped into the college pal with whom he had been travelling all those years ago.
In a recent interview Houdet recounted the meeting: “After the accident I had always been very positive, but at the time he found that difficult. When I saw him in Beijing, he said to me: ‘Okay, you were right. Now I understand. You won a gold medal, you play wheelchair tennis, you travel the world.
“Without that accident, you would still be with me in the middle of nowhere in France, doing surgery on cows in the middle of the night.”
There is a beautiful elegance to the way that Houdet plays tennis; the touch, the technique and the court craft of his youth are very much in evidence. He can coax a serve down at 100mph too.
Reid, meanwhile, took up tennis at six and was a good junior, but at 13 contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord.
Within three years he had become the British men’s champion. Since then the graph has climbed steadily upwards to a peak this year when he won both the Australia Open and the first Wimbledon singles title. (Prior to that, the All England club only ran doubles competitions in wheelchair tennis.)
He spoke about the importance of the momentum gained from the Slams this year, and taking it into the Paralympics.
“When you are part of a bigger team, representing your country, it is a real special honour that we don’t have at the Grand Slams,” he said. “I think it is still regarded as the pinnacle of wheelchair tennis, maybe a little bit different from able-bodied tennis.
“The Slams are huge events, there is so much tradition there, but it [the Paralympics] is right up there to do well for my country.”
He also has an understanding of the onus that is on the sport’s top players.
“It put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “What I have done this whole year, in the Grand Slams and here so far, is to just try and enjoy it, enjoy the moment, let the tennis happen. So far I have shown what quality there is in wheelchair tennis.”