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The best wheelchair tennis player in America is a 19-year-old from Wichita

Wichita native Casey Ratzlaff has become the No. 1 wheelchair tennis player in the United States. He helped Team USA qualify again for the World Team Cup event being held in the Netherlands from May 28-June 3.
Wichita native Casey Ratzlaff has become the No. 1 wheelchair tennis player in the United States. He helped Team USA qualify again for the World Team Cup event being held in the Netherlands from May 28-June 3. Courtesy photo

The first question is always, 'How did he get so good?'

The sight of Casey Ratzlaff ripping forehands from his wheelchair on the tennis courts at Genesis still attracts a handful of curious bystanders, most of the time oblivious to who they are watching.

"That's the No. 1 wheelchair player in the United States," Justin DeSanto, an assistant men's tennis coach at Wichita State, who trains with Ratzlaff.

The next question from wide-eyed observers is always the same: 'Where is he from?'

"It's actually kind of crazy that so many people don't know he's from Wichita," DeSanto said.

For now, Ratzlaff, a 2016 Maize High graduate and Wichita State sophomore, is still mostly anonymous in his hometown, even though he has become the best wheelchair tennis player in the country before his 20th birthday.

"Our sport is starting to get a little more publicity, but it's not extremely well-known yet," Ratzlaff said. "I try to tell people our sport is the same as tennis, except for the chairs. It's still incredible to watch and the athletes are doing just as much as anybody else. We're putting in the hours and the hard work. It's growing but we need it to grow more."

After the top three Americans decided to retire from wheelchair tennis following the 2016 Rio Olympics, Team USA was in flux. America was relegated out of the World Team Cup Finals and failed to qualify for them last year.

Enter the new age of American players: Ratzlaff, 19, Chris Herman, 20, and Conner Stroud, 18.

Casey Ratzlaff Team USA
Wichita native Casey Ratzlaff (middle) poses with teammates Todd Hanover (left) and Chris Herman (right) at the Wheelchair World Team Cup Americas Qualifications in February. Ratzlaff helped lead Team USA back to the Team World Cup at the event. Joanne Wallen Courtesy photo

They will represent Team USA on the world's largest stage at the World Team Cup Finals this year in the Netherlands from May 28-June 3 after Ratzlaff helped Team USA qualify again earlier this year in Orlando.

Ratzlaff, who is ranked No. 38 internationally, played No. 1 singles for Team USA and picked up the biggest wins of his career, twice beating Chile's Alexander Cataldo, who is ranked No. 24 in the world.

"This could potentially be the start of something special," Ratzlaff said. "We're all so young and under 21 and we're just beginning our tennis careers professionally speaking. There's so much for us to learn and to experience. We're really looking forward to getting to the World Team Cup and getting the ball rolling for Team USA again."

Back home in Wichita, DeSanto wasn't surprised to learn of the results.

Since he started training with Ratzlaff back in October, DeSanto has seen the work ethic and family support Ratzlaff has behind him. He practices six times a week between two and four hours per day.

"There are a lot of great wheelchair tennis players with a lot of good ability, but Casey separates himself with his work ethic," DeSanto said. "He's not just a good wheelchair tennis player. He's a good tennis player, period. He's a natural athlete and there's no doubt in my mind that Casey would be a great player if he were on his feet, as well."

Nick Taylor is Wichita's most well-known wheelchair tennis player, as he has become one of the world's best in the quad division. He is a three-time Paralympic gold medalist and owns 11 grand slam quad doubles titles.

It's been a great source of pride for him to see another Wichitan excel on an international level.

"It just goes to show you that the next great American player can really come from anywhere," Taylor said. "I remember when he rolled onto the courts at Maize High, the very first time I met him. I knew he had the chance to be special, I just didn't know if I could convince him or his parents. Luckily, they listened and he's put in the hard work and now he's helping put Team USA back on the map again."

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Wichita native Casey Ratzlaff celebrates with coach Jason Harnett after winning a match against Ecuador at the World Team Cup Americas Qualifications in February. John C. Cornell Courtesy photo
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