Nico Langmann is wheeling towards Wimbledon
20-year old wheelchair tennis star Nico Langmann, who was left paralyzed from the hips down by a road accident when he was just a toddler, has never been one to let others set him limits. Growing up in a sporty family, he joined in whatever his older brother and their friends were doing. They’d play football games, often on pitches where they weren’t officially allowed, and so that meant his friends throwing his chair over fences while Nico crawled underneath.
„That’s probably one of the reasons why I am good at sport now,“ he says. „I never saw any limitations. I just did the things everyone else did.“
Sitting in the autumnal drizzling rain after an intense tennis training session, he laughs at the memory of those early football games: “I was fearless. I’d be chasing the ball down in my chair and crunching into tackles.” Naturally when his family started playing tennis, he wanted to join in too; using his arms to propel the wheels and then gripping the racquet and swinging away. “At first, I couldn’t hit a ball,” he smiles, “but it was so much fun.”
Wheelchair tennis, an incredible test of strength, speed and co-ordination, is booming right now. It differs from able-legged tennis only in a few details, most notably that the ball is allowed to bounce twice in order to give the players slightly more time to get around the court. Actually, that rarely happens in competition, says Nico: “the game is so fast nowadays and the players hit the ball so hard.”
Speed, spin and strength
Even if the rules are similar, the challenges are mind-boggling. I’m standing the other side of the net to Nico on a rainy morning, hitting balls with the Paralympian, and am blown away by the skill set he has acquired. To create power, he spins his chair into the shot and uses his back muscles to pile on the top spin with an aesthetic flourish of a follow-through. The his hands are back on the angled wheels of his chair as he circles back into position. The balls that come to me are heavy with rotation and anything I drop short is thrashed past me.
Tennis is a sport where body positioning is paramount. All the little adjustments I make with my shuffling feet, Nico has to make through anticipation and quick spins of the chair. He draws circles with his wheels as he waits to return serve, the equivalent of able-legged player bouncing on their toes. It’s a hugely demanding physical spectacle and it seems no wonder that Nico’s upper body looks fit to burst out of his shirt. “Every muscle I have left,” he jokes, “I have to train hard,”
„I always want to win“
Tennis soon developed into much more than a hobby for Nico. The sunny persona hides an inner grit. “I am a very competitive person. I always want to win,” he says. “I know this makes me sound like a jerk, but as soon as I learned to play I wanted to go out and beat people.” His father found a trainer with experience in teaching wheelchair players via Google and Nico trained and trained and trained and trained.
He’s beaten so many people over the years that now that hobby has become a full-time profession that allows him to travel the globe on the burgeoning ITF world wheelchair tennis tour. This weekend, for example, he fought his way to the semi-finals of the Sardinia Open. “It’s not as glamorous as you imagine,” he says. “I just see the airport, the hotel the gym and the tennis court. It’s about maximum performance. But you do get to meet all the stars.”
The men’s ITF world wheelchair tennis tour is often held concurrently and at the same venues as the able-legged ATP tour meeting that Nico shares facilities with household names like Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. The Paralympian has established a close relationship with ATP top ten player Dominic Thiem who sends him encouraging text messages before big matches, and Nico had a training session with Murray ahead of the Stadthalle tournament in Vienna in 2014.
“He came over and said he’d been watching and admiring me play,” laughs Nico, “and asked if I had time to hit some balls with him.”
Dedication and determination
The sacrifices demanded of elite athletes is mind-boggling. After this training session, Nico is headed down to the gym for both endurance and strength work. Often, when you include the warm-downs and restorative physiotherapy, his days involve 10 hours of dedication to tennis. But it has only been in the past couple of years that he has established a team around him that has helped him break into the top 20, a process somewhat interrupted by a heavy ski crash in 2015.
“I’ve learned a lot myself working with Nico,” says his coach Oliver Hagenauer. Despite the similarities to able-legged tennis, there are subtle tactical differences in the way to successfully built up points, but as in the form of tennis I play, much less, successfully, it basically all comes down to speed and mental strength. Nico has both of those attributes in buckets.
Cracking the top 8
It is a boom time for the sport of wheelchair tennis, which has been boosted by television coverage of the major Grand Slam tournaments, as well as the enthusiasm generated by live prime-time coverage of the recent Paralympics in Rio and London.
Eurosport, building on that swell of public support, showed the recent US Open on its “Player” internet coverage. Wimbledon has become the final of the four Grand Slams to include wheelchair singles in its championship fortnight, to the delight of tennis fans who were brought to their feet in standing ovation at this year’s Championships after a 2-minute rally of breathless excitement in a men’s doubles match.
Only the top 8 ranked players are invited to the prestigious Grand Slams and so naturally cracking that elite club is the ultimate goal for Nico Langmann. The gulf between the top players and the rest remains wide. “It’s going to be tough and the road there might take longer that Nico wants,” says coach Oliver Hagenauer; “but that is what we are working for so hard every single day.”
Publiziert am 25.09.2017