Opportunity knocks for wheelchair athlete

CHRIS DORST | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Pat Donaghey plays in a doubles match Satuday with partner Jon Adler (right).

When Pat Donaghey attended the Charleston Public Courts tennis tournament for the first time last year, he saw an opportunity.

The New York transplant, who has been wheelchair-bound for more than 20 years, thought the week-long event would be the perfect venue to showcase his abilities and along the way stir others who may be in similar circumstances to take up the sport.

Donaghey and partner Jon Adler worked seamlessly together Saturday afternoon in dispatching L.G. Cochran and Williams Hicks in straight sets 6-1, 6-0 in the men’s 3.0 doubles division at Schoenbaum Tennis Courts in Kanawha City.

Kim Isaac, a former Public Courts tournament director, said to the best of her knowledge Donaghey is the first wheelchair participant in the tournament’s 55-year history.

“This is my first year competing in able-body tennis,’’ said Donaghey, who is an accomplished wheelchair player. “I wanted to bring awareness to the sport that people in wheelchairs can get out there and play tennis.

“It’s good for the sport, integration of the wheelchair and able body. Show maybe somebody else in a wheelchair, ‘Hey, I could play tennis. I do it a little differently, that’s all.’ Hopefully inspire some people and open up a couple of eyes.’’

Donaghey, who was born and raised in the Bronx, is a four-time wheelchair tennis grand prix title winner, but this year he began competing with able-body players for the first time.

“It’s challenging at times when you play your better teams,’’ he said. “You have to think a little more and reactions, I don’t have any lateral movement, that’s why I try to get moving in the back when Jon’s serving or turning so I can respond with my left and right movement. [Opponents] have an advantage because they can sidestep.’’

Donaghey was shot in the chest and paralyzed during a robbery when he was 25. He first picked up wheelchair basketball and was invited to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, then toured Italy with the U.S. Paralympics team. He took up tennis and won the U.S. Open twice (1992 and 1993).

Donaghey’s goal of participating in Public Courts led to his inclusion in the Charleston YMCA league.

“I challenged myself,’’ he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to work my tail off, shred a couple of pounds and get back into it and get out here and play in this tournament.’

“So I asked my coach, ‘I want to join the league,’ and they all looked at me like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I said no and they didn’t know the rule. They had to go to the United States Tennis Association and get justification.’’

Donaghey is allowed two bounces instead of one before hitting the ball when playing with able-body players.

“He seldom does,’’ Adler said of Donaghey not taking the extra bounce. “There will be matches where he never takes them.’’

Donaghey said it’s to his advantage play by the regular rules.

“I am allowed two bounces if needed, but I try to play everything on one as much as I can because it gives the opponent less time to react,’’ he said. “But there’s times I’ll take it on two. That’s the only difference.

“Some say, ‘Ah, I wish I got two bounces.’ You’re going to get your negatives and you’re going to get your positives. There’s been more positives than negatives. I’m fortunate enough to have good backing at the YMCA. A good bunch of guys on the team. We all try to pick each other up. That’s what teamwork’s about.’’

Donaghey and Adler have been doubles partners for about seven months. Donaghey is also competing in mixed doubles at Public Courts.

“I’m fortunate enough to have a good doubles partner,’’ Donaghey said. “That’s why I love playing with Jon, we’re there for each other. We’ve kind of jelled. We did pretty well this year for the ‘Y’ team. We really beat a good team our last outing. It was a really good win for us and that fired me up to come down here. So I asked Jon if he would like to double up and he said, ‘Sure, without a doubt.’ ’’

“At first it was an adjustment,’’ said Adler. “You’re a little self-conscious and all that. He downplays everything. He doesn’t want special treatment. Playing [now], it’s no different at all. He backs me up and it’s great because he’s a great player.’’

Donaghey will next head to Fredericksburg, Va., to compete for the Mid-Atlantic wheelchair title in the A Division this year after winning the B Division last year.

“I love it,’’ he said of the Public Courts atmosphere. “It’s good that people get out here. They’re doing a good job. I’m just glad to be a part of it.

“The main thing is to get out there and just be playing tennis. That’s what I do it for, the sport and the game. I don’t ask for sympathy. I just want to fit in and play tennis.’’

Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at tatkinson@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4811.

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