David Wagner is America's Most Decorated Men's Tennis Player. So Why Hasn't Anyone Heard of Him?
Wagner, a dominant force in quad tennis, lives a monastic life just to make a living playing his sport.
Andrew Fielding-USA TODAY Sports
Sometimes, during football season, David Wagner sneaks off to a back room adjacent to the cafeteria at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to watch the Seahawks. Right now, though, it's mid-summer, and the cafeteria is filled with table after table of college women's lacrosse players. The USOC rents its fields to the University of California Berkeley, Wagner had explained on our earlier tour of the grounds. A group of teenaged boys stands in the back of the room; they're not eating a meal now. Instead, they filch banana bread, one slice after another, like they're getting away with something. Those kids are here as part of a BMX camp, one of the many that the USOC hosts each year. In a prior year, Wagner told me, the kids had ridden their bikes all over the tennis courts, breaking the net and bending one of the net poles. "Real X Games types," he says, rolling his eyes.
David Wagner is handsome in a boy-next-door kind of way—quick to smile and dimple-cheeked. At age 41, he's also the top-ranked men's tennis player in the United States across all divisions. He has a storage locker filled with tennis honors, including three gold medals, two silvers, and a bronze, 14 Grand Slam trophies, and countless prizes from the 15 or 20 tournaments he plays each year, most of which he wins. Wagner doesn't have room for them all in his home here at the U.S. Olympic Training Center where he is the only tennis player in residence. He employs no private coach, relying instead on a rotation of part-time coaches provided by the USTA. His only expenses are tennis-related entry fees and travel, plus his cell phone. Each year, his financial goal is to break even. Such is the life of an elite wheelchair tennis player in the quad division, where you can be the top U.S. men's player and still be virtually unknown.
The rules of wheelchair tennis are virtually identical to its able-bodied counterpart—played on a full-sized court, and both women and men play best-of-three sets matches—with one exception: the ball can bounce twice on a return, which allows wheelchair players better court coverage. Without the lateral movement afforded to standing tennis players, wheelchair players move in a V pattern to cover the court. The most visually distinctive element of wheelchair tennis is that, after completing a stroke, the player will turn to his or her non-racquet side, spinning a full 360 degrees while gliding or pulling their chair into position for the next shot. The racquet remains in the player's dominant hand as they push the chair with their thumb and heel. Quadriplegics with limited hand strength, like Wagner, will find their preferred grip, tape the racquet to their hands, and then wrap an extra layer, sticky-side out, to provide traction for pushing the chair.
Sport wheelchairs are lightweight—averaging 20 pounds, to a standard wheelchair's 35—and built for maneuverability. A center of mass adjustment system allows players to position their seat height, and the seat back flexes to allow for overhead shots. Not everyone in the sport uses a wheelchair all day—several players can walk—but they all do have disabilities that prevent them from playing competitively in an able-bodied game. All disabled players are eligible for the men's and women's open division, the largest in the sport; the quad division is restricted to players whose upper limbs also are impaired.
The first time Wagner fell in love with tennis was in 1994, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Walla Walla Community College, where he was pursuing a degree in elementary education. At the time, he was an inexperienced player; he spent high school focused on basketball. After he got to college, he stopped playing organized sports and put on weight. When he saw that the tennis team was recruiting new members, he figured it would be a fun way to get active again.
"All the sudden, at 20 years old, I got the tennis itch," Wagner says. "I played until two, three, four in the morning on weekends. I had befriended the security guard at [nearby] Whitman College, and he'd leave the lights on overnight."
Ten months later, Wagner was at the beach playing frisbee with friends when he leapt for a catch and went head over heels into the sand, breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down, with limited feeling in his hands. He spent the following year learning how to do everything again—how to tie his shoes, brush his teeth, push his chair. His buddies would come down for a visit and, desperate to do something other than sit around the rehab center, they started playing ping pong at a nearby spot.
"I liked it because it was something I could do with an able-bodied person," he says. He could play them while they were seated or standing, and everyone could hang out and pass the time with David as David, not David as paralyzed guy. A similar sentiment motivated Wagner to try wheelchair tennis a few years later. He was thumbing through Sports and Spokes—the Sports Illustrated of disabled sport, as Wagner calls it—when he saw an advertisement for a USTA wheelchair tennis camp a few hours away. His girlfriend at the time played tennis, and he thought, Here is something we could do together.
"She and I went out to the courts and I'm in my everyday chair, holding a racquet I could barely hold," Wagner says. "I'm sitting on the T of the service box and she's just ripping balls past me." When he did get his racquet on a ball, his weakened grip didn't allow him to handle it and the velocity of the ball yanked the racquet out of his hands.
"I was like, this sport sucks. No way can someone in a wheelchair can play tennis, let alone a quadriplegic."
He went to the camp anyway, where he was one of a dozen quadriplegics. The organizers put him in a sport chair and showed him how to tape the racquet to his hand to compensate for his unsteady grip.
"I got that itch instantaneously," he says. "It was back, big time."
When he got back home, whenever Wagner wasn't studying, he was training. "I befriended every coach in Walla Walla," he says, laughing. When he graduated from Walla Walla University, he had to make a choice: find a job as an elementary school teacher, or test out a tennis career? He decided to enter some tournaments and see what happened.
"He was the real deal. Physically gifted, great competitor and had a first rate tennis brain," says Jason Harnett, one of Wagner's USTA coaches. He remembers first seeing Wagner play in 2000. "What we realized is that we had a 'Federeresque' in David. David is a very complete player who has an ability to switch from a defensive position back to offense out of one hit. Only the very best men's open players have matched his skills, and he is a quad!"
Wagner turned pro that year, and at his first invitational, in 2001, he bested Nick Taylor, one of the top three players in the world at the time. Taylor would later become Wagner's doubles partner, and the two would go on dominate the doubles game while often meeting head-to-head in the singles division. Wagner has won the U.S. Open singles tournament twice (in 2010 and 2011) and the doubles tournament three times (2007, 2009, 2010). In Australia, he won the singles tournament in 2011 and 2014 and the doubles from 2007-2010. He's a three-time Paralympic gold medalist in doubles (2004, 2008, 2012) and twice took home the silver for singles (2004, 2012). He and Nick Taylor have won the NEC Doubles Masters six times. His career record in quad singles is 628-105. Currently, he ranks number one in the quad division for both singles and doubles.
Wagner's career has coincided with an era of change for wheelchair tennis. When he went pro, in 2000, the Australian Open was still two years away from starting its wheelchair division, and the U.S. Open was five. (The other two grand slams, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, also began hosting wheelchair athletes in open divisions, but neither one has a division for quadriplegic players such as Wagner.) Today, mainstream outlets are covering disabled athletes more. Shingo Kunieda, the World No. 1 singles in wheelchair tennis' open division, is featured prominently on the website of Uniqlo, his sponsor.
"I don't think there has been a time in the sport's history where it has been more accessible to the general public via mainstream media," Hartnett said. "I think it is only going to get better and more widespread as more funding through larger sponsorships comes into the sport. You can already see the corporations beginning to latch onto the athletes more and more each year."
Yet the money remains a difficult nut to crack for athletes like Wagner. Prize money is significantly lower in wheelchair tennis, as is sponsorship interest. Companies that do sponsor wheelchair tennis seem unsure of what to do with their players. Head, for example, provides racquets and accessories to a number of wheelchair players, including Wagner, but does not list any of those players on its website the way it does for ATP and WTA players.
For Wagner, the process of securing sponsorship is humbling, at best. "I do it all myself," he says, "which is also somewhat of a challenge. It's really hard to talk yourself up to a company. I got a press kit that I designed, I laid it out, I took all the pictures. I sent out like 500 of them and I've gotten one response. It was a no." Wagner landed one big fish—Nike, which provides him with apparel and shoes—by old fashioned cold calling.
"I've won everything I can win within my chosen sport, and I can't get a company to recognize that and say, man, we value that just as much as we value an NBA player who's never won a world champion, never won a basketball game, never went to the finals."
When Wagner talks about giving the sport more exposure, he often asks rhetorical questions like "Who would be offended?" and "What harm would it do?" And while the answers may be no one and none, his line of thinking leads to other questions that are more difficult to grapple with, and come to the crux of what is holding wheelchair tennis, and disabled sports in general, back. Spectators, whose interest in a particular athlete may range from admiration to rabid fandom, do not see themselves, or an aspirational version of themselves, in an elite player like David Wagner. Instead, they see the chair, they hear his story about a simple game of frisbee gone terribly wrong, and it reflects the viewer's worst nightmare. It's understandable, Wagner says. After all, who aspires to break their neck?
The biggest challenge wheelchair tennis needs to overcome, according to Wagner, is the instinct for viewers to pity its players. Pity motivates spectators to root for the person with the most severe disability, or else to root for everyone equally. But picking a player to follow is what turns spectators into fans. Wagner thinks change could come through a series of little shifts—featuring a wheelchair tennis player on NBC's teaser for U.S. Open, or broadcasting wheelchair matches on the Tennis Channel.
"It's not like disabled athletes are asking for more," he says. "They're just asking for, How about we try a thing? But it's hard. I'm right in the mix of it because of my disability. Before I had my disability I wouldn't have thought anything about it."
This is why Wagner is so looking forward to the U.S. Open, where he gets to play in front of fans who know tennis well—who will talk about the sport in terms of its athletic virtues, and find their inspiration in players who dominate on the court, despite their past struggles. These are Wagner's people.
Harnett is optimistic about Wagner's chances. "David is looking as good going into this year's U.S. Open," he said. "He is one of the favorites to win it all in singles and doubles. This year, Dylan Alcott and Andy Lapthorne will prove to be as tough as always, and Nick Taylor has had a strong surge this past five weeks on tour. So for David, I think he enjoys the challenge of being 'the hunted."
Much about Wagner's long-term future is uncertain. The USOC is slated to transfer the 155-acre training facility to the city of Chula Vista in January of 2017. So far, the city has expressed an interest in retaining its use as a training site, but whether and how that will happen is still in question. And Wagner's performance in the 2016 games may well play a role in his long-term future as a USOC resident. He will be 42 by then, and while wheelchair tennis players have more longevity than those in the able-bodied game, it's time for Wagner to start thinking about what's next.
"Honestly, I could be that guy who could just really devote his life to the sport, and be the guy who travels with other disabled athletes and helps teach them what I've been taught," he said. "I love it that much."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Wagner attended Whitman college.