The Wimbledon Championships are at the heart of the British sporting summer, and as the final weekend rolls around, the wheelchair tennis players enter the stage at SW19. With the British players being supported by English Institute of Sport (EIS) personnel, Sarah Cecil and Sam Williamson give us some insight into the role they have to play.
Today (July 7th) sees the world’s best wheelchair tennis players start their challenge for Wimbledon honours this year, with four of them – Alfie Hewett, Andy Lapthorne, Gordon Reid and Lucy Shuker – flying the flag for Britain.
They receive support from EIS practitioners Sarah Cecil (Senior Performance Psychologist) and Sam Williamson (Physiotherapist), who are both employed by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA).
That support doesn’t start and end with Wimbledon and the other Grand Slams, or indeed the Paralympic Games, either. Just as the British players are grinding on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) tour week after week, EIS practitioners are on hand to help them perform at their best.
They had a presence at the warm-up tournaments at Birmingham, Eastbourne and Queen’s, where the players got a feel for grass court tennis ahead of the Slam.
Williamson, who joined the EIS in 2018, said: “The attention is definitely around the Grand Slams. They’re the biggest tournaments of the year. And so for those players, the rest of their tournament schedule is designed to complement getting in the Grand Slams and performing well in them.
“That tends to put a bit more work on my plate. Around those periods, support-wise, I’ll tend to go out for whatever the warm-up event is and often cover the Slam itself now.
“When I joined the programme, the philosophy was that Slams have really good physio provision anyway, so we tended not to cover them, but that’s changed a little bit. Athletes have expressed a desire to have fuller programme support around the Slams, not just from a physio point of view, but in general.”
Another source of support is Sarah Cecil, who has been with the EIS for 17 years – five of those with Wheelchair Tennis.
All of the players have individual sports psychologists, but Cecil oversees and manages them, while a big focus of her work is with the men’s doubles team – Hewett and Reid, who are targeting an 11th consecutive Grand Slam doubles title together and a 16th in total.
Cecil hasn’t been to Wimbledon herself since 2019, with the 2020 tournament being cancelled due to Covid-19 and last year’s having restricted access, so it’s been important for her to work closely with Williamson and other support staff to ensure they are “reinforcing the same messages” to the players.
That cross-disciplinary collaboration between EIS specialists, which helps to get athletes physically and mentally ready for competition, is “super important” according to Williamson.
Williamson, who was working with Canoe Slalom, and in the NHS, before joining up with Wheelchair Tennis in 2019, added: “I think it’s something we do quite well as a team. I work closely with the coaches and Strength & Conditioning coach, and link up with Sarah as well.
“Because I’m at tournaments and around the players a bit more closely than Sarah is, I quite often get some insight into things that she might not necessarily see or hear on the ground.
“We can kind of discuss that a little bit more, and obviously she’s super experienced, so she’s helping guide me through these processes because they’re all a bit newer to me.”
The challenges posed by Wimbledon are both mental and physical, and for Cecil one of her biggest priorities from a psychological point of view is around communication on the court.
She said: “My main role with the doubles pairs is getting them better and better at being able to communicate with each other under pressure. You can’t be coached in that sense [during matches], so we have to teach the players the ability to manage each other on court.
“The main thing is how they manage each other when one of them starts to drop. They’ll know what their game plan is based on the opponent, but while sometimes they both play well, sometimes one plays well and not the other.
“So the key thing is to notice when the other person is starting to struggle and to bring them back or manage them so you get the best out of them.
“And it’s doubly complicated because then they might play against each other in the singles.”
(The draw hadn’t been made at this point, but Hewett and Reid have indeed been drawn to face each other in the singles competition!)
From a physio’s point of view, the challenges are numerous. The grass makes it harder for the players to push their wheelchairs, leading to increased soreness and tiredness.
Then there’s the scheduling, with men’s, women’s and quad wheelchair singles and doubles all played between Thursday and Sunday, meaning tight turnarounds.
Williamson said: “For lots of sports you’ll know what time you kick off or you know what time you’re going to start your race. Whereas for tennis you quite often get a ‘not before’ time, which means you’re depending on what the match before does. You might warm up, then never get on court and have to re-warm up, and things like that.”
For all of those challenges and pressure, there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of excitement, too.
“If you’re British and you’re into tennis, then Wimbledon’s the pinnacle, for anyone in this country, isn’t it?” Williamson added.
“So it’s really exciting. There’s a strong home crowd, and the other lovely thing about the Slams is that for the wheelchair game it’s kind of the only time that we get a decent sized crowd, which is really cool for the players and for us [support staff].
“Quite often the rest of the tour is played in a small club somewhere to maybe three or four people, then suddenly you’re on a court with a stand. There’s lots of flags, lots of cheering going on, so that’s a pretty cool experience.”
Wimbledon’s Wheelchair Tennis events are scheduled to run from Thursday 7th July to Sunday 10th July this year, and are available to watch via the BBC. For more information on the support the EIS provides to Wheelchair Tennis, click here.