On the final Friday morning of the 2019 U.S. Open, weary New Yorkers—still reeling from the stunning conclusions to the two women’s semifinals from the night before—awoke to a quiet but excited murmur that had fallen over the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. As the stage became swiftly set for a stunning Saturday showdown between Mississauga’s Bianca Andreescu and the legendary Serena Williams in the final, tennis fans were quick to turn their attention to that evening’s men’s semifinals, where the possible storylines would be rich in emotional value, regardless of the outcomes.
But if a striking storyline is what you were seeking, there is a good chance that you looked further than just the singles (or even the doubles) draws at Flushing Meadows that week. More than 800 km north-west of Flushing, NY, at the world-renowned Aviva Centre in North York, a very select group of players were making their way around the outside courts on wheels, as Canada’s biggest international wheelchair tennis event—the Birmingham Classic—kicked off another edition with a whole host of intriguing storylines.
An ITF 2 Series event held the same week as the U.S. Open wheelchair event this year, this world-class event has managed to attract some of the best wheelchair tennis players in the world over the years, including North Bay’s Robert Shaw, who made history last month in Lima, Peru by becoming the first quad tennis champion at the Parapan American Games.
At the age of 29, Shaw is in the midst of a career-best season, which has seen him crack the top 10 in the quad division and win six quad singles titles—including the Parapan Am Games and ultimately the Birmingham Classic. (In wheelchair tennis, there are three divisions—men, women and quad—the last of which is designated for individuals who have a substantial loss of movement in one or both of their legs along with one or both of their arms.)
Speaking exclusively with ONTENNIS after his victory at the Birmingham Classic, Shaw opened up about his unique history with the sport, the life-changing injury that kept him physically and mentally away from the game for much of his early 20’s, and the difficulties that come with competing with a physical disability at an international level.
When speaking with a wheelchair tennis player, the majority of players will tell you that they discovered a love for the sport in the midst of a very difficult time of self-discovery in their lives. But for the North Bay native, Shaw is well-aware that his story “is a little unique.”
“I got into tennis before my injury when I was seven or eight years old and then played it competitively until I was 15,” he explained in a telephone interview. “I started coaching at 15-16, so at that point, I kind of hung up my racquet and became a coach and coached until my injury, which was when I was 21. During that time, when I was 16 and as a coach, I had gone down to Toronto to get my wheelchair tennis certification the first year it was ever offered in Canada. And for about three years after that, I sort of ran very recreational wheelchair tennis clinics at my home club in North Bay (the North Bay Granite Tennis Club).”
“I had a bit of experience with the game before my injury and once I got injured, I think I had both that experience of being a tennis athlete and having the experience of being a coach of some wheelchair tennis, so I knew I would be able to play again,” he continued. “Obviously, I had to learn to play differently given that I had to tape my hand to the racquet and given that I didn’t have full function like I used to.”
When he was 21, Shaw was injured in a freak diving accident, which left him with incomplete quadriplegia, a spinal-cord injury at the C5-C6 levels and paralysis in all four of his limbs. While his arms appear to function pretty well from an outsider’s perspective, the 29-year-old says that he only has about 50 percent use of his left tricep, which obviously hinders his daily movement.
“I have very little function in my hands, so my hands are really good from a dexterity standpoint and I can do intricate movements but I have very little strength. I have the grip or the pinch of a one-month-old in my right hand, which is why I have to tape the racquet to my hand because I have no grip whatsoever,” explained the Canadian.
“There’s a huge variation in the sport in terms of function level and disability types, but I’m someone who uses a day chair all-day-long. I do have some function in my legs, so I can stand up if I have support for a few minutes, which is quite lucky.”
In what he describes as one of the most frustrating and overwhelming times of his life, Shaw quickly tried to jump back into competitive tennis, playing for two years after his injury before deciding to step away from the game indefinitely. It was during this trying time that Shaw had decided to complete his undergraduate degree and start his postgraduate studies, in lieu of trying to train and compete full-time in a sport that now left him more dejected than satisfied.
“I actually got injured going into the fourth year of my undergrad about two weeks before school started, and I was in Phys Ed., so that made graduating pretty tricky,” he recounted. “I took a year off and just did rehab, and then when I went back, I had to really sit down with the dean and make sure that the courses were going to be accessible. It was their first time ever having someone in a wheelchair go through their Phys. Ed program, so they were really good about it. We sat down and figured out some electives that were going to be really hard for me to do, but there’s no reason that I can’t still experience them in a different way to complete my coursework.
“I finished my undergrad and then I went on and started doing a Master’s program in Kinesiology, and then I fast-tracked that into a PhD, which I still have one year left on.”
But as he was completing his post-secondary studies, Shaw soon found himself unable to shake his desire to return to competitive tennis after playing recreationally with his family, eventually deciding to play his first ITF event in 2013. After an up-and-down first couple of seasons, the Canadian quickly set a personal goal to pledge his commitment to the sport, which understandably took him a lot more time to prepare for mentally than physically.
“It’s funny because when I was a coach, I never really followed the wheelchair tour; I didn’t know any of the big athletes or the big names,” said the North Bay native. “So when I was injured, that was when my family obviously started showing me some videos and I saw some of the best players in the world play in the quad division, and I thought to myself: ‘Okay, if I put some training and some effort in, I can definitely get to that level.’
“I was pretty confident with that and then I realized two years into it that it wasn’t as easy as it looked, [and] that it was mainly a lot of mental frustration for me. Being so recently injured, I had a very clear memory of how easy the sport was standing up and how good I was at it standing up, so I was not able to hit the ball like I used to. That sort of played into my mentality of disliking the sport and being more frustrated and angry than happy with it, which obviously led me to taking that two-year break.”
Due to the incredible demands that are asked of both able-bodied and disabled athletes, one cannot overstate the importance of having a strong support system from start to finish. “No matter where your support comes from, it has to be stable; it needs to be strong,” said the Parapan Am quad champion.
“They need to be there for you socially, emotionally and obviously financially, as far as buying wheelchairs, buying equipment and funding your training. But from a beginner’s perspective, it’s very difficult to play para sports, especially compared to stand-up sports, so you need them there, especially for those first few experiences, to be there with you for emotional support. You need that motivation to keep going and to push through it throughout your career.”
As with the vast majority of wheelchair tennis players on tour today, Shaw has been lucky enough to have the unconditional support of his family, who, he admits, has become “a more cohesive and a tighter-knit” unit than before his injury.
“I’ve had my mom on court drop-feeding me balls early in my career and picking up balls when I was doing serving, I’ve had my brothers and my sisters come out with me and help me train and go to the gym and strap my hands to weights,” he said, happily. “I’ve had my brothers and my dad bring me out to the tennis court and hit with me when I wasn’t very good. They’ve been there for me from the very first time that I was in a tennis chair to when I am now, so that’s been the biggest and most stable support for me, for sure.
“And then, obviously, Tennis Canada. Janet [Petras] and Kai [Schrameyer] have been there for me from day one. They’ve never left my side; they’ve respected my decisions. They’ve respected my will to not be just a full-time athlete on its own but to also do school at the same time. They’ve respected my decision to move to certain places that are better for me work-wise and they’ve really trusted me to make the right decisions.”
It is thanks to this dual support system that Shaw has now emerged as a major threat in the quad division, entering any event that he plays as one of the clear-cut favourites. Interestingly, much like his fellow Ontarian Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian hasn’t even played a full schedule this year but has still managed to crack the top 10.
“I started playing good tennis in February, and I was feeling really good about my game,” he recounted, when asked about the biggest positive change to his game this year. “And then a friend of mine passed away unexpectedly, and that caused me to take a whole month off of training. Coming back from that is when I sort of went on this pretty big tear. I think a lot of it has something to do with my mentality around caring less about the sport. I think that’s a weird thing to say for certain athletes maybe, but my friend who passed away was really entrenched in his sport for 22 years of his life and it really took a lot out of him.
“So, I realized just how important it was to have other outlets in my life that I really enjoy and making sure that I really took the time to enjoy all of that, like hanging out with my family and friends, enjoying my work, having hobbies and making sure my whole life wasn’t focused around just playing sport. That was one big factor that has probably played a big role—just caring less when I’m on court and understanding that it’s not the end-all, be-all if I win or lose a match.”
In the process of developing a new approach to the game, the 29-year-old admitted that the off-court work that he has done with his sports psychologist has finally begun to click after the last two years, and he is now able to apply the skills that he has learned to not let his negative emotions get the better of him on the biggest stages.
It is a welcome change that Shaw has begun to see more and more of in the last six months, especially in his build-up to the 2019 Parapan Am Games. Competing in the first-ever quad wheelchair event to be held at the Games, the North Bay native tore through the eight-player draw, dropping just seven games in six sets to win the title. On top of that, Shaw was able to upset World No. 2 David Wagner in the final, scoring his first win over the American in eight tries.
“It was obviously a big win for our organization in general—Tennis Canada and Wheelchair Tennis Canada—and I knew those things [about potentially making history] going into Parapan Am,” he explained. “I knew I was going in as the No. 2 seed, I knew that Canada hadn’t won a singles medal before, and that was at least an added pressure for sure.
“But I had a good meeting with my sports psychologist and we just had a good mentality that this was just another tournament. It’s not a big deal to us, it’s just one of many tournaments—I knew that once that tournament was done, I would be back in Toronto competing [at the Birmingham Classic].
Rocking the Gold! Parapan Am Games Gold Medalist Robert Shaw surrounded by (left to right) Kia Schrameyer, Betty Birmingham, Jennifer Bishop and Janet Petras
“It wasn’t until a few hours after I won that I realized just how big of a win it was at a tournament that I wouldn’t be able to play the next year because you have to wait four years for the next [Parapan Am Games]. When that set in, it was a bit like, ‘Whoa, this is a big win—bigger than a normal win for me.’”
With the incredibly unique experience of having competed at the Parapan Am Games now under his belt, Shaw now has his sights set on making the podium at next year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo, which has always been his long-term goal.
In a decade that has seen close to a dozen Canadians break through at the international level, either on the pro, junior or wheelchair circuits, it is fair to say that we are living in a Golden Age of Canadian tennis that has been spearheaded by the likes of Daniel Nestor, Milos Raonic, Eugenie Bouchard, Gabriela Dabrowski, and now U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu. When asked to describe how it feels to be part of this new wave of Canadian tennis, Shaw joked, “I said in one of my quotes [in another interview] that it’s nice to be a ripple on that wave, but with Bianca, it’s more like a tsunami now, which is super, super exciting.”
“I mean, it’s been so long for Canadian fans waiting for a singles champion—we’ve had so many great doubles players and really good singles players too, but no one had been able to get over that hurdle of winning a major. So, for her to win a major a week after I win a gold medal, [it] just shows how good we are doing right now, and we’re taking positive steps on the international stage. It’s going to be super exciting to watch this next generation of players.”
As he turns his attention towards the future, it is clear through hearing him speak that Robert Shaw’s future professional plans are not limited to just his own tennis. Like many other wheelchair athletes, he would like to see more integration of the wheelchair game in various ATP and WTA-level events throughout the season. In other words, he would like to see more wheelchair events that are held in conjunction with the able-bodied events, which is currently the case at the four Grand Slams, in order to create a better level of awareness of the game.
“That’s how you really expose the sport in a better limelight, by partnering with the ATP and the WTA and [showing] that it’s not just a sport that people can play standing up,” he suggested. “There’s a massive amount of people out there who have a disability and who might not be aware that they can play the sport in a chair, and they already have so much media and representation at the WTA and ATP events that it would be very easy to sort of integrate the wheelchair game within those tournaments.”
While he thinks that the wheelchair tennis tour will never be as big as the WTA or the ATP, Shaw thinks that bringing more awareness to this side of the game will only help to dispel common misconceptions about para sports.
“I think the biggest misconception is that the quality [of wheelchair tennis and para sports] isn’t worth watching,” he shared. “It’s quote unquote ‘slower,’ we’re not hitting the ball as hard, it’s easier to win points. And you know what? All those things may be true, but as far as skill-to-function ratio goes, these athletes are just as skilled as the stand-up players. We’re putting in the same amount of work, we’re touring the world just like they are.
“There’s a really cool event going on later this year where we’re going to have Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori playing an exhibition with two of our wheelchair players, Shingo Kuneida and Gordon Reid, so that’s happening in Tokyo and I think that’s going to open people’s eyes as far as just how good these players are. Yeah, they are in a wheelchair and it’s a little bit different, but the quality of the sport is still super high, as long as you’re not directly comparing it to the WTA or the ATP.”
As the tennis world begins to gear up for another Olympic year with a compelling clash of generations on both tours, there will be a number of unanswered questions that could make for an unprecedented number of storylines: How will Bianca Andreescu, a new top-5 player, back up for her historic season? Will Serena Williams ever win her 24th Grand Slam title? Will the Big 3 continue their dominance at the majors?
However, if you’re looking for a striking storyline that is not quite like the rest, be sure to keep an eye out for Robert Shaw at the Paralympics, which might very well be one of the greatest and most unexpected storylines to come out of Canadian tennis in a very long time.