The NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour continues to evolve in 2009, when the wheelchair events at the four Grand Slams yield most world ranking points and new tournaments and tournament sponsors come on board.
In 1992 the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour as we know it today was launched, originating with 11 international tournaments a year after the launch of the first official wheelchair tennis world ranking was launched.
The first official season for the new NEC Wheelchair Tennis Circuit, as it was then known, brought with it a new tiered structure of tournaments, organised in pyramid formation from Super Series at the top through to Championship Series 1, 2 and 3 events and with Satellite events as the bottom tier of international tournaments.
In 1995 the British Open replaced the Swiss Open as Europe’s Super Series event, with the British Open and the US Open becoming the top two annual tournaments on the NEC Tour until 2002, when the Australian Open joined them and the Japan Open followed shortly afterwards.
By 1995 there were nearly 100 tournaments on the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour and 1996 saw the publication of the first IWTF Tournament Guide, which included contact and entry details for all 116 tournaments on the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour.
In 2000, the number of tournaments had reached 130 events in 37 countries and since the turn of the 21st century the number of tournaments remained within a range of 10 tournaments either side of this peak, until this season when the 2009 NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour tops 150 tournaments for the first time. With 21 new tournaments this year, the 2009 NEC Tour includes 151 tournaments in 37 countries.
With the quality in the standard of tournaments on offer and the standard of tennis and competition at those tournaments, the NEC Tour has also seen a considerable increase in prize money over the years.
In 1995, prize money on the tour totalled a little over US$200,000, with the figure rising to almost US$600,000 by 2000. In 2008, more than US$1 million prize money was available on the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour and that figures continues to climb due to the introduction of some major new events and the increased integration of wheelchair tennis in the Grand Slams.
In 1990 the Lipton International Players Championships in Miami made history when it became the first major professional tournament to include a wheelchair tennis division alongside the able-bodied players.
After a happy association lasting more than 15 years with the event popularly known as the ‘fifth Grand Slam’, the inaugural Wheelchair Tennis Class 8s at the 2002 Australian Open saw competitive wheelchair tennis take place at the same time and the same venue as a Grand Slam for the first time.
Traditionally held two weeks later than the Classic 8s, again at Melbourne Park, the Australian Wheelchair Tennis Open, also became the first new Super Series tournament for seven years in 2002. In 2004 the Japan Open was added to the list of Super Series events, giving the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour four majors at the top of the sport, mirroring the men’s and women’s tours.
In 2005 the ITF Masters Series tier of tournaments was introduced and in recent seasons Masters Series events have included wheelchair tennis tournaments at the four Grand Slams. While 2005 saw the inaugural Wimbledon Men’s Wheelchair Doubles event and the inaugural US Open Wheelchair Tennis event at Flushing Meadows in New York.
In 2007 Roland Garros became the last of the four Grand Slams to integrate competitive wheelchair tennis events, while the Australian Wheelchair Tennis Open replaced the Wheelchair Classic 8’s on the competition schedule for the second week of the year’s first Grand Slam. For the first time, one of the four majors on the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour was aligned with one of tennis’s Grand Slam events.
Two years later, the world’s leading wheelchair tennis players now compete for maximum world ranking points at all four Grand Slam. While the sport undergoes new innovations, one thing is certain - wheelchair tennis has become arguably the most revered of international disability sports for its professionalism and integration with its mainstream counterpart.