By: Emily Crousore (student at the University of Alabama)

From the start of the program in 2013, the University of Alabama Wheelchair Tennis team has built up its reputation from virtually nonexistent to being one of the most highly viewed collegiate wheelchair tennis teams in the country. Winning their 6th consecutive national championship in 2022, and 7th in program history, the team has paved the way for future collegiate wheelchair tennis programs nationwide.

Evan Enquist is the team’s head coach and has been working with the program since its beginning. Throughout his time, Enquist has seen firsthand the growth of collegiate wheelchair tennis into what it is today. However, he knew that this growth needed to start first in Tuscaloosa.

“Several years ago, we knew we wanted this program, and we wanted wheelchair tennis to grow and be alongside its able-body counterpart,” Enquist said. “We knew that we really had to build it first and we had to invest our time, energy, and coaching and get more players into the game before this was a viable product that could be brought to the ITA or the NCAA level.”

As collegiate wheelchair tennis was not as prominent as other adapted athletics programs, Enquist knew he needed to start by building a strong tennis community surrounding the team in order for their program to recruit the type of players he wanted.

“It’s just been so much fun to get to be a part of the tennis community in general, but then creating a space where young athletes want to come into this space, people want to come back to school and get grad degrees, they want to be involved because they can have an amazing place to train,” Enquist said.

Not only has Alabama built a strong organization amongst its people, but just a few years ago the program was able to take another step in broadening the outlook of collegiate wheelchair tennis.

The Parker-Haun Tennis facility opened on the Alabama campus in October of 2021, and is the only collegiate tennis facility in the United States made specifically for adapted athletics.

“Being one of the few places in the country where you can train full time with other wheelchair tennis players is not a common thing across the country,” Enquist said. “In our program, you do that full time, you learn from each other, and those people become best friends.”

With a strong community behind the team and such drive to grow this program, Enquist has been able to achieve his goal of gaining more players for the game. One player in particular is current junior, Nathan Hunter.

Enquist recruited Hunter in 2019, and since then, Hunter has been able to not only grow in his athletic ability, but in his pride for the sport. In 2022, playing in the national championship for the first-time last year, Hunter was able to gain a spot in the finals for the singles only tournament, and help lead his team to their 7th national championship.

“It has been a dream of mine to play collegiate tennis, and it has been an honor to represent college tennis as a whole and help future programs in wheelchair tennis to thrive and become what we have made here since 2013,” Hunter said.

Hunter is like any other student athlete, splitting his time between the court and the classroom. As a student athlete at such an athletics dominated school, Hunter understands the hold he has as a representative of the University of Alabama.

“We set such a standard for other teams and other colleges,” Hunter said. “It is a certain level of professionalism that I take pride and joy in.”

With the 2023 USTA Wheelchair Collegiate Championship taking place April 12-15th, Hunter is ready to be back in an environment that he describes as a “big load of energy”.

The team will not only be looking to achieve their 8th National Championship, but as of this year, the two finalists at the USTA’s National Collegiate Wheelchair Championships will be able to play an exhibition match at the NCAA Division I Championships held in Orlando on May 20th.

This type of recognition is exactly what Enquist and other advocates for collegiate wheelchair tennis have been working for.

“This feels like what we’ve been working towards for the last 8 years,” Enquist said. “Being included in the NCAA final where every college player in the country will be in Orlando is a pretty cool achievement and it feels amazing that it is actually here.”

With this achievement, the hope to completely break down the barrier between the collegiate wheelchair tennis program and its able-body counterpart will only continue as well as hopefully persuade other universities to start their own wheelchair tennis programs.

“I do think this kind of inclusion provides stability for what we do as a college,” Enquist said. “ think this is a massive step that is only going to excite these teams that are kind of on the fence about adding tennis to their current adapted athletics.”

Although work is still to be done, these advancements are giving advocating programs, such as Alabama, hope for a brighter and more inclusive future.

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