After the tremendous success of the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, the expectations of organisers and competitors were riding high for Atlanta 1996. Seventy-two wheelchair tennis players from 24 countries battled for the ultimate sporting accolade: a Paralympic gold medal.
A four-hour ceremony opened proceedings with the Paralympic mascot, a bald eagle named Blaze, gracefully swooping into the Olympic Stadium. The atmosphere was electric as Christopher Reeves, former cinema Superman and the master of ceremonies stressed how each competitor represented the "triumph of the human spirit". Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli and Aretha Franklin contributed songs to add the final touch.
Wheelchair tennis once again followed in the footsteps of the Olympic Games which had been played at the purpose-built Olympic Tennis Centre at Stone Mountain Park.
Home crowd disappointed in Final
The men's quarterfinal between Laurent Giammartini and Jim Black of USA unfolded into a tortuous battle of wills. Competing in temperatures over 34 degrees centigrade, Giammartini took the first set fairly easily, but a string of errors allowed Black to capture the second in just 27 minutes.
The third set was a baseline slog, with plenty of tense rallies to thrill the crowds. At five games all, Giammartini took the next game and then after two gruelling 25 stroke rallies, he finally came through 62 16 75.
This epic contest took its toll on Giammartini and sapped by heat exhaustion, the Frenchman crashed 61 61 to another home favourite, Stephen Welch, in the semifinal. Later that day he withdrew in the third set of a doubles match and was rushed to hospital.
In the other half of the draw, the No. 2 seed, David Hall, had yet to drop a set but his semifinal encounter with Dutchman Ricky Molier was about to change everything. Molier, whose ranking had leapt from No. 35 to No. 5 in just one year, unleashed serves of over 100 mph and demonstrated an array of powerful shots to claim the match over the 1995 World Champion 67 75 75.
Welch had seemingly the least arduous run through to the final. Dropping no more than three games in any set, his confidence was riding high as he approached the gold medal match. The first set was tense and could have gone either way, but Molier's raw strength began to give him the edge and he managed to secure the first set in a tiebreak. It seemed that this was just the boost in confidence he needed and he capitalised on his advantage over Welch. After a long fought battle, the Dutchman eventually defeated the crowd's favourite 76 62.
Dutch women continue dominance
The women's final was an once again an all-Dutch affair, this time between Maaike Smit and Monique Kalkman (nee van den Bosch) who had defeated Chantal Vandierendonck 63 62 in a repeat of the final at Barcelona 1992 the previous round. It turned into a match to remember, with both competitors digging deep to produce their best tennis.
Kalkman captured the first set to love in just 24 minutes but Smit came back to take a 4-1 lead in the second. Not to be outdone, Kalkman fought back to lead 5-4 and had two match points only to miss both. In the subsequent tiebreak, Kalkman held a third match point but Smit answered with a glorious winner down the line and then went on to square the match 9-7 in the breaker.
In a thrilling third set which included some breathtaking rallies and a nail-biting tiebreak, Smit finally out-fought Kalkman to take the match 06 76 76 and claim the Paralympic gold medal.
USA finally claims home gold
In the men's doubles final, Welch and Chip Parmelly of the USA faced Australians, Mick Connell and David Hall. After two hours of gripping tennis, the score was tied at one set all, six-all in the third, and two-all in the tiebreak when the heavens opened.
Thunder and lightening engulfed Stone Mountain Park and it was hard to know whether it was the players or the enthralled spectators who were more perturbed at having to leave the court. The completion of the third set tiebreak was postponed until the next day when Welch and Parmelly squeezed through in just over five minutes to take the match 62 36 76.
Once again the Dutch women's team of Kalkman and Vandierendonck found little resistance as they cruised through the field to their second Paralympic final. Dominating once again, Kalkman and Vandierendonck defended their gold medals with a defeat of the USA's Nancy Olson and Hope Lewellen for the loss of just one game.
"Each Paralympic Games has been a different journey with different expectations. Barcelona was a learning curve for me; even the experience of being with so many athletes in one place was incredible. But more than anything, the Paralympics are about representing your country. The top players in the world are chasing that gold medal." ~ David Hall, Australia, three-time Paralympian
Men's singles Men's doubles
- Gold: Ricky Molier (NED) - Gold: Chip Parmelly / Stephen Welch (USA)
- Silver: Stephen Welch (USA) - Silver: Mick Connell / David Hall (AUS)
- Bronze: David Hall (AUS) - Bronze: Ricky Molier / Eric Stuurman (NED)
Women's singles Women's doubles
- Gold: Maaike Smit (NED) - Gold: Monique Kalkman /
Chantal Vandierendonck (NED)
- Silver: Monique Kalkman (NED) - Silver: Nancy Olson / Hope Lewellen (USA)
- Bronze: Chantal Vandierendonck (NED) - Bronze: Oristelle Marx / Arlette Racineux (FRA)