Kai Ryan is one of the most talented tennis players with a disability his coaches have ever seen.
Like any talented Australian athlete, the 17-year-old, who has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, has his list of sporting dreams.
One stands out.
“I want to be a Paralympic gold medallist for tennis,” Kai told ABC RN’s Drive.
But under International Paralympic Committee rules, his dream looks unlikely, if not impossible.
As Kai’s father, Nathan, explained: “Currently, for people with physical disabilities, there’s only wheelchair tennis”.
Since wheelchair tennis started as a demonstration event at the 1988 Paralympics, the sport has not expanded to include different classifications for different disabilities, like many other Paralympic sports have.
“It hasn’t changed since. And it’s a bit frustrating that all these athletes can’t compete,” Nathan said.
So Kai, his family and thousands of supporters are hoping to change this.
‘Forced to play in a wheelchair’
Ten years ago, when Kai was seven, he met Swiss tennis great Roger Federer at the Australian Open.
“It was wonderful. He was so nice … That inspired me,” Kai said.
Over the next decade, he learnt and played tennis, competing at different levels.
“He started with one shot, then got to two shots, then his rallies just got bigger and bigger. He loves competing, he’s a real competitor. He lives and breathes tennis,” his dad Nathan said.
But Kai could only get so far.
It’s not only the Paralympics where wheelchair tennis dominates. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) – the governing body of world tennis, which organises the Grand Slams – has a similar lack of classifications.
So with wheelchair tennis as Kai’s only option, he recently tried it out. And he was good – very good – coming runner up twice in the ITF Junior Futures Tournament.
But that didn’t mean it was easy.
“He’s played for 10-plus years. He plays in adult comps. He’s beaten people without a disability, and then he’s forced to play in a wheelchair,” Nathan said.
Kai summed up: “It’s very hard.”
“With my disability, I have to bend over to get the wheel and spin it … Moving [in the wheelchair] as well – it’s confusing and hard.”
Along the way, Kai received messages of encouragement and support, including from wheelchair tennis superstar Dylan Alcott.
Then suddenly, last November, everything changed.
At a wheelchair tournament, Kai tipped and landed head-first on concrete. He suffered “a really big concussion” and is still recovering from his injuries.
In a statement posted on his social media channels earlier this month, he announced he was giving up wheelchair tennis.
“I loved playing the sport and wanted to be like Dylan [Alcott] but it was challenging – coming from a standing player, learning wheelchair,” he said.
“Hopefully the ITF accepts players with physical disabilities who choose to play standing.”
So now, the campaigning of Kai and his family has an even greater urgency.
The game plan
Kai and Nathan have a game plan over the coming months and years.
They’re pushing for recognition and adoption of ‘para standing tennis’ (earlier known as ‘adaptive standing tennis’) – or standing tennis for people with a disability – at the highest levels.
The father and son are lobbying for the ITF to include para standing tennis, which they believe will make it more likely for the International Paralympic Committee to add it to Paris 2024 or beyond.
Nathan pointed to the example of badminton as what can be done.
“Badminton [at the Paralympics] has six classifications – two wheelchair and the rest are standing.”
Locally, they want Tennis Australia to endorse para standing tennis and have a demonstration event at the next Australian Open (this year, blind and low vision tennis made its debut there).
Also on Kai’s list of dreams: “Win the Australian Open.”
So far, an online petition for his cause has received more than 17,000 signatures.
Nathan and other family members have also written to the federal government and Paralympics Australia, which assembles the local Paralympic teams. The reply from the latter was not heartening.
“We got an [email] back from them saying that there’s only wheelchair tennis at the moment, so basically, to try different sports,” Nathan said.
“It’s pretty disheartening when you hear that sort of stuff.”
ABC RN contacted Paralympics Australia about this response but has not received a reply.
But Kai and his family are not alone in their efforts.
Nathan said there’s dozens of other countries that “are battling for this, fighting for this same cause”.
On a trip to Japan this month, Kai and Nathan met with the founder and players from JASTA — the Japan Adaptive Stand-up Tennis Association.
And there are signs of progress, with para standing tennis holding its first world tournament (which was self-funded and unsanctioned) in Chile in 2016. Since then, there have been tournaments held across the globe.
“Wheelchair tennis started [at the Paralympics] 34 years ago and there’s been pretty much no change. But this isn’t a big change to make, [by] including these people,” Nathan said.
“I just don’t understand.”
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