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'Beautiful...not Perfect' by Lucy Shuker

One year away from the Tokyo Paralympic Games 2020, we hear from Double Paralympic Bronze Medallist and Vice Chairman on the International Tennis Federation Player Committee, Lucy Shuker about one of the showpiece sports, Wheelchair Tennis. Lucy spoke to us about how major changes in the Classification system are affecting a sport on the rise, and what needs to be done to protect its integrity.

Lucy Shuker at the 2019 Wheelchair Tennis German Open in Berlin

I love tennis. Whether you just play it socially with friends or if you play it to the highest level possible. The thing about it is that you can play with anybody, whether they’re in a wheelchair, able bodied, blind, deaf, it doesn’t matter. Wheelchair Tennis means a huge amount to me, it’s become a part of me. However, although a beautiful sport, it’s not perfect.

Up until very recently, Wheelchair Tennis has been a self-classified sport. The rulebook contains a list of eligible disabilities as well as highlighting some that do not meet eligibility requirements and it has then been up to the individual player and their national federation to correctly declare a player’s disability.

Certain IPC regulations have recently sought to bring the ITF Wheelchair Tennis tour in line with other Paralympic sports and as such there is currently a process by which all players must be officially classified by independent classifiers to confirm their eligibility. This has meant all players have been required to submit medical forms and evidence which prove they meet the classification requirements. It also involves an independent, in-person assessment.

Any new players entering the system now fall under this new classification system. Some disabilities are obviously more visible than others. An amputee will be very easy to assess, but there will be some players who will have a bit more of a hidden disability where they’ll need to have more invasive checks which may relate to their power outputs and range of movement.

Lucy Shuker in training

This has subsequently led to a number of discussions amongst players as we’re all playing for points, seeding positions, prize money and to qualify for the Paralympic Games, and if you’re playing against somebody who might not even be eligible to play the sport then that’s very tough to accept.

In addition, a further transition period has since been granted which now allows players who have been declassified to continue competing through to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Whilst I think you do have to be mindful of greater player welfare issues for those that are suddenly told they can’t compete, the general player consensus is that this is very frustrating given that the rules haven’t actually changed but the way they are being policed is what has changed. So, anyone competing that is now considered not eligible have effectively already been wrongly competing.

I’m sure there is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to improve the transition from self-classification to independent classification but at the moment it feels like the integrity of our sport is jeopardised. I know players are all very confused as other Paralympic sports have much more thorough classification systems, with athletes being tested every year and improvements in disabilities detected. Athletes that also do not meet classification are immediately banned from playing and as harsh as that sounds it maintains a fair competitive arena.

For me, I’m one of, if not the most disabled players on the Women’s Wheelchair Tennis Tour, but I’ve also been inside the top ten for much of the past decade and have beaten many of the girls who are ranked above me. For that to happen I know I have to have my best day, and everything has to come together. I’m happy to put the training in and work hard for my day to pull off those kind of results, but if you start to think that the system is open to manipulation then it erodes your trust in the sport in general.

Lucy Shuker in action during the US Open

When it comes to Classification in all sports not just Wheelchair Tennis, and someone is knowingly cheating the system, I personally think it’s as bad as doping. You’re cheating your opponents, your teammates, and everyone connected to the sport. The other side of it is that if you have an imperfect Classification system, then people sometimes through no fault of the own end up with the wrong classification or wrongly being allowed to compete in the sport or a division.

At the moment I feel like we have a mixture of both. There is work to be done with the Classification system to ensure that it is a more robust and precise system, but there are also people working within that system to manipulate and exploit its flaws.

Beyond the basic need for all players to be independently classified across the World Tour, there are also conversations surrounding adding an additional classification category in wheelchair tennis.

Elite sport is never fair. You will always have biological physical variations. Take basketball for example, you’ll have someone who is 2 metres tall competing against someone who is 1.5m tall. It’s a physical advantage and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s the same in Paralympic Sport. Within sports and even within classification groups there are people with a broad range of physical capabilities.

Lucy Shuker and doubles partner Sabine Ellerbrock

However, we also need to be realistic. In Paralympic sport, limitations effect your ability not just to compete but also your ability to train or push your body to a certain level. Currently we have the Men’s and Women’s Open categories (Competitors in this class have lower limb impairment but normal upper limb and hand-use function) and the Quad division (Competitors in this class have impairment to both upper and lower limbs).

If you did add another category, it would start smaller but would really give the sport a chance to grow. I think there would be an influx of players who have stopped because they feel like they are too disabled to compete in the current system, as well as retaining more athletes who are currently moving on to other sports which have classification categories that better reflect their disability. Athletes with a higher level of disability find sports like basketball more attractive, where the variance in disability is recognised. (In Wheelchair Basketball players are classified based on their disability through a point system from 1 to 4.5. A team is composed of five players, and the sum of points must be 14 or less). They feel they can compete on a fairer basis.

There are numerous people who have brought this issue to me - as part of my role on the Players’ Council – who are looking for exactly this type of progression in the sport. Wheelchair Tennis is an expensive sport, if you’re not competing at the top end you need to be considering whether or not you continue, and that’s where people are right now.

Lucy Shuker during a promotional event with Tim Henman

There’s potential to introduce a category which better reflects the nature of disabilities which athletes have, such as a ‘Para Division’ for those that don’t have control of their core. There’s a huge difference in terms of power, movement in the wheelchair and control between an amputee and someone who doesn’t have control over their core.

I think the argument against this is that it’s said that problems could arise when communicating this to the wider world and bringing sponsors on board. The general public might be confused when there are multiple Paralympic or Grand Slam Wheelchair Tennis Champions across different classifications. But it’s down to marketing and publicity, bringing the viewers along and educating them on the system whilst they’re engaged. We’ve made huge progress here in sports like Para Athletics, so why can’t we do it in Wheelchair Tennis.

Wheelchair Tennis has given me a huge amount. Pointing out these areas for development is not meant as an empty complaint, or ingratitude for the fantastic work that is done by thousands throughout the world to grow the sport to where it is now, quite the opposite. It is my love for the sport which compels me at this stage in my career to share my experiences and to do my best to help keep improving the experience for the next generation of players.

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