After the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Tennis Event ended with 10,000 enthusiastic fans cheering home favourite David Hall to victory, four years later the Athens 2004 event opened with more impressive crowds as 5,000 spectators for the morning session on the first day and 4,000 spectators for the evening session cheered the top seeds in the men’s draw safely through to the second round.
Ammerlaan claims men’s gold
Eric Stuurman of the Netherlands obviously felt comfortable in his first match on the Paralympic Centre Court in Athens. The President of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge and ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti watched from the VIP stand as the No. 11 seed overwhelmed Hidekazu Nakano of Japan 63 61 in 50 minutes.
Meanwhile, the youngest player in the draw, Sweden’s Stefan Olsson, took care of Sri Lanka’s Manatunga Kumarasiri. The 17-year-old won the match in straight sets 60 60, much to the delight of the Sports Minister for Sweden Mona Salin who also watched from the stands.
The evening session on the first day saw Centre Court come alive as local favourite Konstantinos Vazouras took centre stage against Anthony Bonaccurso of Australia. The crowd chanted and cheered throughout the match, creating one of the most animated atmospheres in Paralympic tennis history, but Bonaccurso, ranked some 338 places above Vazouras, was too strong for the Greek and went on to win 61 60.
As the men’s event progressed, Britain’s Jayant Mistry struggled through his first two matches against the Slovak Republic’s Jozef Felix and Austria’s Herbert Baumgartner in three sets before finally losing out to Japan’s Satoshi Saida in the round of 16, while Hungary’s Laszlo Farkas ended the Paralympic career of Germany’s Kai Schrameyer in the second round, beating the 12th seed and Sydney bronze medallist 57 76 63.
As the quest for medals intensified Dutch top seed Robin Ammerlaan and 2000 champion Hall lost their first set of the Games in the quarterfinals on the fifth day of competition, with world No. 1 Ammerlaan edging past Saida 64 36 76(3) to book a semifinal against Atlanta and Sydney silver medallist Stephen Welch. The Dutchman had another tough task, but eventually defeated the American 75 16 64.
Two future world No. 1 players figured in the bottom half of the draw, but both were outdone by the defending Gold medallist as Hall first defeated Japanese youngster Shingo Kunieda 62 06 64 and then eased past Frenchman Michael Jeremiasz 61 61 to reach his second successive Paralympic final.
In comparison to his previous two matches, Ammerlaan’s victory in the final was relatively straight forward, as he came from 2-0 down to take the next six games and the opening set, and with Hall unable to produce his semifinal form the Dutchman clinched the gold medal 62 61 in 48 minutes.
“I played well tonight, everything was going right and I was able to hit a lot of lines,” said Ammerlaan. David also made some mistakes that he doesn’t normally make. I am really happy to win this medal. I wanted it so much for so long and now I have got it.”
Asked if it was sweet revenge, after Hall knocked Ammerlaan out at the quarterfinal stage in Sydney four years earlier, Ammerlaan responded, “Not at all, we have played each other a lot and we always have tough matches. But in the last three matches I have been able to win so I just concentrated on that tonight and it worked.”
Meanwhile, Jeremiasz and Welch put on a fine display of wheelchair tennis in the bronze medal match, the Frenchman eventually coming through to claim his first Paralympic medal 62 64 in front of his entire family.
History was made in Athens as Kunieda and Saida became the first Japanese pairing to win a Paralympic medal when they took gold in the men’s doubles, outclassing Jeremiasz and Lahcen Majdi, their opponents in the final, to take the match 61 62.
Meanwhile, Hall and Bonaccurso recovered from their semifinal loss against Kunieda and Saida to win a titanic struggle for the bronze medal against Dutch duo Ammerlaan and Eric Stuurman 64 67(5) 64, with Hall collecting his third Paralympic doubles medal with three different partners.
Vergeer retains title to make history
The women’s singles got underway with a big shock in the first round as Korea’s Young-Suk Hong upset world No. 6 Jiske Griffioen of the Netherlands. Such is the depth of women’s wheelchair tennis in the Netherlands that Griffioen, ranked in the world’s top six, had come in as late replacement for her compatriot Sharon Walraven, but Hong capitalised on her impressive serve and appeared to mentally the strongest player in the final set to steal a 64 46 76(2) victory.
The usual Dutch dominance faltered again in the round of 16 as Great Britain’s Kay Forshaw produced the performance of her career to upset Atlanta 1996 gold medallist and sixth seed Maaike Smit 64 76(5), Forsawh joining Switzerland’s Sandra Kalt as the only two unseeded players in the quarterfinals.
Forshaw came from 5-2 down in the opening set of her quarterfinal against former world No. 1 Daniela di Toro to threaten another upset, but di Toro progressed.76 60 as four of the five top seeds reached the women’s semifinals.
Thereafter the Dutch redressed the balance, with defending gold medallist Esther Vergeer defeating Frenchwoman Florence Gravellier 63 61 and Sonja Peters ending di Toro’s quest for gold in what she had said would be her final Paralympics.
Peters set up an all-Dutch final after edging out di Toro 75 46 63, but the Australian recovered to clinch an emotional bronze medal – the first medal of the Athens Paralympic Tennis Event – after a 16 62 62 victory over Gravellier.
History was made again in the final as world No. 1 Vergeer became the first player to retain a Paralympic wheelchair tennis title. Having lost just one match in four years going into the Games, 23-year-old Vergeer swept aside compatriot Sonja Peters 62 60.
“I am very proud to win a second Gold Medal. This medal shows that it was not a one day fly back in Sydney. I have been a good player for four years and have been able to do it again here. We still have the doubles left, too,” said Vergeer.
“I felt worried going into this tournament. I was thinking ‘please don’t let this be the first time I would lose after so many years of not losing a match’. I didn’t want to go out in the early rounds. I am young and still feel the pressure and the media attention.”
The women’s doubles proved to be not so predictable, as prospects of an all-Dutch final ended in the quarterfinals after the consistency of Thailand’s Sakhorn Khanthasit and Ratana Techamaneewat proved the undoing of Peters and a below-par Griffioen.
The unseeded Thai duo went on to complete a shock 62 63 victory and then pulled off a 75 60 win over Switzerland’s Sandra Kalt and Karin Suter-Erath in the semifinals, guaranteeing Thailand’s first ever Paralympic tennis medal.
Kalt and Suter-Erath also secured a first ever wheelchair tennis medal at a Paralympic Games for Switzerland, after defeating Japan's Chiyoko Ohmae and Mie Yaosa 75 63 in the bronze medal match..
Meanwhile, the gold medal match began with another dominant Dutch performance as Smit and Vergeer took the opening set without dropping a game. In the second set, Khanthasit and Techamaneewat fought back from 3-0 down to level the scores at 3-3, but Vergeer eventually served out the match, finishing the last point with a crosscourt forehand winner to complete a 60 64 victory.
“We have never played them before together, but we watched them play Sonja (Peters) and Jiske (Griffioen) in the quarters and we didn’t think that was a good match,” said the victors afterwards. “It looked really frustrating to play their type of lob game.”
When asked how their Athens victory compared to their gold medal in Sydney together the Dutch pair, who went into the final on a 44 match winning streak and an incredible 86-3 win-loss record, said, “Now we are more of a team than we were in Sydney. We have played so much together and we know each other’s games so well. So we have more of a strategy.”
Norfolk wins first quad title
The Athens Paralympics will go down in the history books as the first Games to include quad singles and doubles events and the additions to the schedule definitely provided plenty of excitement.
Top seed Peter Norfolk from Great Britain won one of the first quad singles matches on Centre court, overwhelming the USA’s Kevin Whalen 61 62 after being back in action after dislocating his shoulder earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, with the sport’s quad division including both male and female players, the two women in the draw, Monique de Beer of the Netherlands and Sarah Hunter of Canada, both eased through their opening matches in straight sets.
But it was Norfolk’s fellow Brit Mark Eccleston who stole the show and provided the excitement on the opening night of the quad singles, coming back from a set down to defeat Italy’s Guiseppe Polidori 36 63 62.
However, Eccleston’s challenge was to come unstuck in an even more exciting second round encounter against Dutchman Bas van Erp. Serving at 4-5 down in the third set, third seed van Erp, with two match points against him, looked down and out. But four deep first serves in a row secured the game and turned things back in the Dutchman’s favour.
Van Erp took a 6-5 lead with three match points and it was Eccleston’s turn to claw his way back. He successfully saved two match points, but the third proved too much to ask and van Erp progressed to the semis 61 36 75.
The semifinals saw second seed David Wagner edge out his fellow American Nick Taylor 76(4) 75. Meanwhile, ten deuce points in the opening game set the pattern for the other semifinal between Norfolk and van Erp, which was closer than the final score suggested, but it was Norfolk that booked his place in the final against Wagner 62 63.
There was another tense contest for in the bronze medal match, van Erp eventually winning the first Paralympic quad singles medal to be awarded after he overcame Taylor 64 76(8).
In the gold medal match, Norfolk broke early in the first set and with consistent serving, solid returning and good tactical play went on to take it in just 33 minutes. Wagner won two games in a row to take a slender 2-1 second set lead, but despite some closely fought exchanges Norfolk took the next five games to claim a 63 62 victory and earn the distinction of becoming the first Paralympic quad singles champion.
Norfolk was floating on air after the medal ceremony. Before he could answer any media questions, he bit his gold medal, a first Paralympic Tennis medal for Great Britain, and confirmed with a smile, “Yes, it is real.”
“It is unbelievable, I just can’t believe it, I am going to savour this moment. This is what I came here to do. It has been a slow journey back after my injury. I have dreamed about this moment and today my dreams came true. To watch the flag go up and to hear the anthem, it was just what I was dreaming of.”
The quad doubles was again largely dominated by American, British and Dutch players. There were male and female players on either side of the net in the bronze medal match as de Beer and Van Erp defeated Canada’s Sarah Hunter and Brian McPhate 63 61 to give van Erp his second bronze medal of the Games.
The gold medal match also guaranteed second medals for Norfolk and Wagner, but five minutes into the start of the first set rain fell and the players were forced off court without a game on the board.
When play resumed it was the American duo who proved the stronger, snatching the first set before breaking in the third and fifth games of the second set with some brilliant play from Taylor. But in the end it was two errors from the British pair that sealed a 64 61 victory for the Americans.
An emotional Taylor commented after the match, “We went out there with a game plan, were able to stick to it and we just played great. They tried to hit it to me a lot because I am a little slower covering the court in a power chair but luckily with David covering so well at the net they only had half the court to hit too.
“It is the greatest moment of my life, it really is. It has been a dream of ours for a long time and now it is true,” said Taylor.
Men's singles Men's doubles
- Gold: Robin Ammerlaan (NED) - Gold: Shingo Kunieda / Satoshi Saida (JPN)
- Silver: David Hall (AUS) - Silver: Michael Jeremiasz / Lahcen Majdi (FRA)
- Bronze: Michael Jeremiasz (FRA) - Bronze: Anthony Bonaccurso / David Hall (AUS)
Women's singles Women's doubles
- Gold: Esther Vergeer (NED) - Gold: Maaike Smit / Esther Vergeer (NED)
- Silver: Sonja Peters (NED) - Silver: Sakhorn Khanthasit /
Ratana Techamaneewat (THA)
- Bronze: Daniela Di Toro (AUS) - Bronze: Sandra Kalt / Karin Suter-Erath (SUI)
Quad singles Quad doubles
- Gold: Peter Norfolk (GBR) - Gold: Nicholas Taylor / David Wagner (USA)
- Silver: David Wagner (USA) - Silver: Mark Eccleston / Peter Norfolk (GBR)
- Bronze: Bas Van Erp (NED) - Bronze: Monique De Beer / Bas Van Erp (NED)