Wheelchair Tennis Champion: ‘My disability doesn’t stop me from anything’ Print E-mail
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By Doree Lewak - New York Post 6-3-2019

 

Joanna Nieh, 17, is the top-ranked player coming to the Jana Hunsaker Memorial Wheelchair Tennis Tournament on Thursday through Sunday. Tamara Beckwith/NY Post

With her mighty forehand, Joanna Nieh sends a ball blistering past her opponent. “Nice point,” the other player cries.

More impressive is that the forehand was delivered from a wheelchair, which is how Nieh, a 17-year-old Upper West Sider, plays tennis. Now the No. 1-ranked player in the US girls-singles wheelchair category, is competing June 6 to June 9 at the Jana Hunsaker Memorial Wheelchair Tennis Tournament in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

“I think that my disability doesn’t stop me from anything,” says Nieh, who has spina bifida, a birth defect that paralyzed her legs and led to at least 15 surgeries in her young life. “I think that I’m just like anyone else playing sports.”

The soft-spoken teen prefers to let her skill do the talking.

“The only thing she says on court is ‘out,’ ” says Nieh’s dad, Jason, a computer-science professor at Columbia. “She’s a sweet, nice girl until she gets on the tennis court — then she wants to kill you.”

 

Tamara Beckwith/NY Post

Nieh was 5 years old or so when she attended Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the US Open, and picked up her first racket soon after. For years, she played while on crutches, which she often uses to get around off-court. But as her tennis skills improved, she yearned for more mobility. “It was always fun, but I couldn’t move around,” she tells The Post.

That changed once she acquired a $3,000 customized wheelchair, with wheels that angle out for stability. “I can do an overhead smash and I serve overhand just like most other players,” she says.

The only rule change in wheelchair tennis is that players are allowed two bounces, not one, to hit the ball. Nieh plays for her school’s varsity tennis team and plays against opponents of all abilities. And while she hasn’t faced outright adversity, she loves to defy skeptics: “I’m small, young and in a wheelchair, so I probably get underestimated from time to time.”

The greatest challenge, she says, is holding her racket while moving the chair, and learning how to get around her inability to move side to side.

 

Tamara Beckwith/NY Post

Nieh makes a return during a recent practice session.

 Meanwhile, she says she finds inspiration from other people with disabilities, “who show what they can do and how good they can be, whether it be sports or music or anything else. Last night I saw guys playing instruments with their feet — one playing a guitar and another one playing the drums, which I thought was really inspirational.”

In between her SAT studies, physics, pre-calculus and Mandarin lessons, she spends six days a week on tennis practice and training, including a weekly adaptive tennis program at Riverside Park with other kids in wheelchairs.

Nieh’s played tournaments around the world — in Italy, Argentina, Belgium and France — and considers it an honor to represent the US. “I really like going to Europe,” she says. She also likes collecting trophies, which crowd her desk at home.

She’s even brushed tennis elbows with the sport’s royalty, having been chosen to helm the coin toss between Madison Keys and Naomi Osaka at last year’s US Open women’s semifinals. “That was really cool,” she says, with a grin.

As for the future: Nieh says she definitely plans to attend college — “as long as I can play tennis.”