In his past career, second seed Stephane Houdet talked with the animals — literally.
That’s right. The 44-year-old Houdet is a veterinarian, although he gave up practicing in 2004 when he decided to pursue playing wheelchair tennis full-time.
As a veterinarian, he initially worked with “big” animals — cows and sheep. But then at the age of 24 he was in a motorbike accident and became an amputee. It was at that juncture Houdet changed the focus of his practice.
“I used to be a vet,” said Houdet, after winning his Roland Garros semifinal match 60 64 over Gordon Reid of Great Britain on Thursday afternoon. “I quit in 2004, but I am a vet for life, so one day if I need to go back to animals I will. After my accident I just focused on the pets and my specialty was working on behaviour.”
These days, Houdet can’t keep pets of his own because he’s traveling the world playing tennis 23 weeks a year.
It actually took Houdet 10 years following his accident to begin playing wheelchair tennis, but he certainly wasn’t picking up the sport anew. In his youth, Houdet played the able-bodied junior game around the same time period as Fabrice Santoro, Frederic Fontag and Arnaud Boetsch.
Houdet arrived at this Roland Garros as the two-time defending champion, but he seems to take that distinction in his stride. However, it is those Roland Garros crowns, secured at home in France, that he consider the highlights of his tennis career to date.
“I just change the word pressure to attention, so it means I have more attention which is just a lot of pleasure,” said Houdet, of trying to win the title for a third time this year. “Probably the final last year is my favourite because I had to redo it (defend), and that’s what I did so it was a fabulous day.”
In Friday’s final, Houdet will face top seed Shingo Kunieda of Japan, who saved three match points to outlast Gustavo Fernandez of Argentina 63 36 75.
The stage is set for Friday’s women’s final with 2013 ITF Women’s Wheelchair Champion Aniek van Koot of Netherlands to take on top seed Yui Kamiji of Japan.
This year’s trip to Paris, however, was about more than just playing Roland Garros for van Koot. On the eve of the start of the wheelchair event, Van Koot dressed up to the nines for the black tie ITF Champions Dinner where she received the 2013 ITF Women’s Wheelchair World Champion award for the first time in her career.
“It doesn’t happen every night that you get an award from (ITF President) Francesco Ricci Bitt andi that you're a world champion, so I’m amazingly proud of that,” said van Koot, remembering back to Tuesday night. “When we came back (to the hotel) I couldn’t sleep because I was still repeating the whole night in my head. It was such a beautiful night.
“And I think I brought that vibe still with me here,” added van Koot, after reaching the Roland Garros final on Thursday.
In two matches played this Roland Garros, the left-handed Van Koot’s posted confident straight-set victories. In the semifinals on Thursday, she upset second seed Sabine Ellerbrock of Germany 62 62.
“She’s a very decent player, that’s for sure,” said van Koot, noting that Ellerbrock and she have on occasion swapped the women’s wheelchair top ranking. “She’s deserved the No. 1 spot when she had it, for sure, because she was the better player. But today I had my head in the right place and I was going in the right direction, so I was extremely pleased.”
For van Koot, wheelchair tennis became a passion when she was just 10-years-old. She was born with her right leg shorter than her left leg, eventually necessitating amputation after surgeries to lengthen the leg were unsuccessful.
As a 17-years-old, she was the No. 1 ranked junior in 2007. For much of the beginning of her adult career she was in the shadows of her countrywoman, the now retired Esther Vergeer, who owns one of the best professional sports records in the world.
By 2012, van Koot was a finalist at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and London Paralympics, losing all three times to Vergeer. But she only had to wait one more year to win her first Grand Slam title at the 2013 Australian Open, ending Vergeer’s 10-year reign as the No. 1 player in the world.
But not all was going well for van Koot, who following her victory at the 2013 US Open had wrist tendinitis and shoulder problems. She was unable to head to Australia to defend her title in January. But she’s now back playing and arrived at Roland Garros straight from Netherlands' 27th BNP Paribas World Team Cup victory this past Sunday.
That said, van Koot says she’s still not fully rehabilitated from the injuries.
“The shoulder plays up,” van Koot said. “I think two weeks in a row playing really takes a lot from my shoulder. It’s a bit of a bummer since you feel a little bit old because of it. But if I take good care of it things will turn out perfectly, I think.”
Kamiji kept to her ranking prediction in making the final courtesy of a 57 62 76 win over Jiske Griffioen of the Netherlands.
In women’s doubles, second seeds Kamiji of Japa and Jordanne Whiley of Great Britain teamed together for a 76(6) 63 semifinal win over Ellerbrock and Kgothatso Montjane of South Africa.
And in the other match, the Dutch doubles duo of Griffioen and Van Koot won a 75 62 semifinal match over Marjoein Buis of Netherlands and Charlotte Famin of France.
Buis and Roland Garros debutante Famin threatened to upset the top seeds and had a set point in the first set of their semifinal, but Griffioen and van Koot held on to advance.
Roland Garros Men's Singles Draw
Roland Garros Women's Singles Draw
Roland Garos Men's Doubles Draw
Roland Garros Women's Doubles Draw
Order of Play - Friday, 6 June 2014