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Moving to Stardom in the U.S. Open
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Moving to Stardom in the U.S. Open

A wheelchair athlete who refused to let the odds way him down, Shingo Kunieda, currently holds 20 single championships and delivered a stunning performance in the men’s double semi-finals that were held on Thursday, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. This performance moved him straight to stardom at the U.S. Open.

A Long Journey on Wheels

That fateful Thursday was one of intense worry and anxiety for Shingo Kunieda as his trainers, coach, and wife stood by his side, trying to fill the tires of his wheelchair. Kunieda was about to participate in the first wheelchair match at the stadium but something was amiss. One tire had developed a leak, which would make it very hard for him to maneuver himself effectively across the court.

The wheelchairs used for tennis always have inverted wheels – one for speed and the other to navigate quick turns. According to the rules, if a player’s chair has an issue, the player gets just 20 minutes to try and fix it or he is forced to default.

Wagner, a seven-time doubles winner and two time U.S. Open quad singles champion, considers the chairs to be like shoes for the players. They need to be taken care of very well, however, sometimes the equipment gets damaged during transit.

All Wheels on Standby

Mike Zangari, the wheelchair equipment consultant of U.S.T.A, was trying to fix the problem because he knew that a broken chair was the equivalent of a severe injury to the player and would change the course of the match. Zangari is also a victim of spina bifida but still plays wheelchair basketball, softball, and tennis.

Zangari, who was initially a wheelchair technician and salesman, is always positioned near the court during the match. He knows that each athlete’s chair has to be customized just the way he wants. Depending on the type, wheelchair prices go up to $6,000. International wheelchair competitors have to ensure they carry extra wheels, spokes, tubing, etc. during the match.

If a player wants to have a shot at stardom in the U.S. Open, the first thing they do on arrival is meet Zangari and ensure all their equipment is in good condition. A tire with even slightly reduced pressure can hinder a player’s chances, and while some players are able to fix issues that crop up, others cannot.

Regular Maintenance Checks Are a Must

Wheelchair players need to do preventive maintenance on a daily basis. This includes rotating tires, ensuring everything is running smoothly, and so on. Wagner once faced a situation where his wheel got caught in a grate and shattered the caster. Fortunately, he had all his equipment with him and could fix the issue. However, for those who can’t do this, Joanne Wallen, the director of wheelchair tennis at U.S.T.A. says that Zangari is a lifesaver.

Kunieda usually doesn't allow others to touch his equipment, but since he was racing against the clock before his first match, he asked for Zangari’s assistance and the job was completed just seconds before Kunieda’s pre-match warmup.  

The competition here needs precision, just like any other. If there’s anything off, the players instantly sense it and it is then Zangari’s job to help them solve the issue. Without Zangari keeping watch court side, moving to stardom at the U.S Open would have been a much tougher task for most of these players. 

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