Quadriplegic serving up success in tennis Woodlawn man stars in wheelchair play

October 09, 1990|By John W. Stewart

He's the No. 3-ranked tennis player in the world, and he's from Baltimore County.

No, Lendl, Becker and Co. have not taken up local residence. This is Kevin Whalen, who lives in Woodlawn, and you might not have heard of him.

Whalen, 33, has been a quadriplegic since a 1984 swimming accident. A former collegiate player, he took up wheelchair tennis seriously only three years ago.

He has made such progress that not only is he up to No. 3, but he also will be bidding to improve on that status in this week's U.S. Open championships in Irvine, Calif. More than 300 wheelchair tennis players are scheduled to compete in various divisions.

Considered a quadriplegic because all four of his limbs were affected by the accident, Whalen made such an impact on his peers with his playing ability and attitude toward the sport that he was chosen Player of the Year in 1989.

Until six years ago, Whalen knew nothing of wheelchair tennis.

A native of Oneida, N.Y., and a graduate of St. Bonaventure, where he had played on the tennis team, Whalen had a wife and a job in sales and marketing. He continued to play tennis recreationally.

"Labor Day 1984," he said, making it sound as though it were yesterday. "I was standing in the ocean at Bethany Beach, doing what I had done maybe a thousand times before -- getting ready to dive into a wave.

"I dived, and the only thing I remember is calling to a friend for help. As best we can figure out, I landed in a trough between the waves. They pulled me out, and my first words were, 'Am I paralyzed?' And they said, 'Don't worry,' but it turned out to be an injury to the spinal cord.

"Five minutes after it happened, I was thinking, 'If I'm going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I'd better get ready now.' It was one of the ways I dealt with it. I knew it was over as soon as I hit. I couldn't feel anything."

Since Sept. 2, 1984, his timetable has included:

* March 11, 1985: Returned to work, considered an incredible feat given the short recovery time.

* July 4, 1985: Drove a van.

* Summer 1985: Watched his first wheelchair tennis tournament.

* Oct. 1985: Competed in his first tournament, in Virginia Beach, Va.

"That summer, people were telling me I'd never play tennis again," Whalen said. "A friend strapped a racket on my hand, watched me hit a few and said if I practiced, she thought I could be good."

Whalen has enough use of his arms to swing a racket in one hand and maneuver his wheelchair -- equipped with a bar to prevent it from tipping over -- with the other.

At Virginia Beach, he said, "a guy beat me in the first set, 6-0, because I couldn't even get the ball back. Then I won, 7-6, 7-6, and thought, 'Wow, now I can play.' I made it to the final, where my opponent, in an electric chair, beat me, 6-0, 6-1, in 15 minutes. I was hooked, and decided to find out what this sport was all about."

He has followed that with what has been a highly successful year for him in a variety of ways, including his tennis career and the securing of some corporate financial assistance.

"Last year, I traveled the U.S. circuit, but this year, through the help of the Ray-Ban division of Bausch and Lomb and the Wilson Co., I was able to play in Europe for the first time," he said.

"At the French Open, I beat the No. 1 player in Europe, Patrick Sapino, before losing in the semis. The Dutch Open did not have a Quad division, so I moved up to play in Class C [a stronger level of competition], but did not fare as well.

"It was a great experience, however, because I got a chance to play on red clay. Playing on that surface helped improve my hard-court mobility. Also, nobody pushes my chair, and, with all that sightseeing, I felt really strong, and it helped me in Cleveland."

At the Mid-West indoor championships in August, Whalen beat two of the top players in the nation before losing to the No. 1-ranked player, Steve Scott, in the final.

"Another thing that helped during the summer was being able to devote more time to my tennis," Whalen said. "Tom Welsh, Claude England and Josh Evantoff -- three excellent players -- have practiced with me. The best thing is being able to play against able-bodied players. The only concession our rules make is to allow two bounces of the ball. Otherwise, the rules are the same."

Whalen recently received sponsorship help from the Quickie Wheelchair Co., a California-based company that is one of the leading manufacturers of sport wheelchairs, and he celebrated by winning the Southwest National tournament in Albuquerque, N.M., one of four national tournaments.

In the process, Whalen beat Rick Draney, who had been No. 1 several years ago, played Class C last year, then dropped back.

"The Open this week will be competition at the highest level, because it attracts players from all over the world," said Bob Hixenbaugh, president of the Cleveland Wheelchair Tennis Association and director of the Mid-West championships. "Kevin has been slow to move up in the rankings, but he has beaten all the top players."

Whalen cites three keys to his success -- wife Shannon, an institutional advancement officer at the University of Maryland; tennis-playing friends Welsh, England and Evantoff; and corporate help.

"Shannon has been my driving force in everything -- my tennis, my work, my life," Whalen said. "Without her, I don't know what I would have done. It's a fact that in the first year after an accident like mine, 90 percent of the marriages end in divorce. It's very difficult, because you go from being independent to dependent, but she has been my strength.

"My father died in August 1987, and I have dedicated winning a national championship to him," Whalen said. "It hasn't happened yet, but the dream is alive -- perhaps this time."

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