When the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games were taking place Sabine Ellerbrock hadn’t even been introduced to wheelchair tennis, but almost four years on she is set to go into the London 2012 Paralympic Tennis Event as the highest ranked non-Dutch player and among the leading contenders for a medal.
“When Beijing started, I was still involved in able-bodied tennis. I did a lot of other sport, too, but I got a disease in 2007 and after an operation I could no longer play able-bodied tennis, so I tried wheelchair tennis out and I was directly fascinated,” recalls the 36-year-old current world No. 4 from Bielefeld in Germany.
Ellerbrock had her first experience of wheelchair tennis In January 2009 and. playing in a tennis chair she had on loan, she contested her first NEC Wheelchair Tennis Tour event, the Bavarian Indoor Open, just two months later. She won the women’s consolation singles after losing out in the first round of the main draw to Dutch player Marjolein Buis, with whom Ellerbrock has now been vying for the world No. 4 ranking in recent weeks to try and secure a top four seeding for London.
Another four months later it was the Bavarian Outdoor in July 2009, a month after she had gained her first world ranking, that provided Ellerbrock with her first women’s singles title and she ended her first year in the sport with another singles title in France, her first women’s doubles titles, as well as a top 30 women’s singles ranking.
Ellerbrock’s progress has been in no small part due to the fact that she had almost 25 years of tennis experience behind her before her wheelchair tennis career. In those 25 years she spent one season playing doubles in the top tier of the Bundesliga, Germany’s national tennis league, and several seasons playing in the second tier of the Bundesliga.
“When I started wheelchair tennis some people told me I had to learn another backhand, the reverse backhand, but I decided to stay with my own technique, an for me it's not been a problem. But the position on court, I’m still learning that. That has been the most difficult thing for me. That is what I have to keep improving on,” says Ellerbrock, who finally got her own tennis wheelchair at the end of 2009 before ending 2010 world ranked No. 14.
Ellerbrock’s time playing in the Bundesliga allowed her to combine her tennis with her job as a maths, science and sports teacher, but her path towards qualification for London 2012 has seen her having to take unpaid holiday.
“In 2010 I decided that if I wanted to qualify for the Paralympics I had to quit my job for a time, because in Germany it is not possible to play wheelchair tennis and work, so I took unpaid holidays from February 2011 onwards.”
The decision paid quick dividends as Ellerbrock entered the world’s top 10 for the first time in April 2011 after winning her first ITF 1 Series tournament at the ACSA South Africa Open.
“I have surprised myself, originally it was not my goal to get in the top 10, I only wanted to play tennis. But then I thought ‘Maybe you can be successful’. I always need a goal, but at first the Paralympics was a dream. At the end of 2010 I thought it was realistic,” says Ellerbrock. “Now my dreams have changed, I think maybe now I can reach the semis and play for a bronze medal, but I’m sure many players dream that and, of course, the draw is very important and you need some luck.”
After her first ITF 1 title in April 2011 and ending last season world ranked No. 5, Ellerbrock’s biggest success to date came in May this year when she won her first Super Series title at the Japan Open. But the 19th of the 21 singles titles she has won in her first three and a half years in the sport is no guarantee that she will get the chance to contest more Super Series events in 2013.
“Japan was, for sure, my proudest moment so far. It was my first Super Series, I had some injuries before the tournament and it nearly happened again in Japan, but I won, so maybe I shouldn’t put so much pressure on myself. But In Germany it’s not really recognised that I won a Super Series and that I’ve played some finals and beat some top players.It's all about the Paralympics. I know that my funding for preparing for the Paralympics will stop in September and so we will have to see.”
Reality for Ellerbrock is that she may not only be playing for the chance of winning a medal in London, she could also be playing for her future in the sport, but is relishing her debut Paralympics, in which she will also play doubles with her compatriot Katharina Kruger.
“When I think about the Paralympics I am excited and I’m glad that I will have some people coming with me to support me. I don’t know how I will cope with so many spectators, whether I will get nervous. I hope that my experience of playing tennis for so many years helps a little,” she says. “The first thing I want to do is enjoy it, that’s the most important thing. I want to look forward to every minute and hopefully the results will come one at a time.
“I think I’ve done a good job the last two years and it depends what the future holds for me. The best thing for me would be to be able to combine my job with wheelchair tennis, but if that is not a possibility, maybe I will have to quit in February next year at the latest. It depends if I can get holiday for one more period, but a medal would help.”