In more than 35 years in wheelchair tennis, there are few roles that Great Britain’s Martin McElhatton has not fulfilled. Player, administrator, coach and volunteer encapsulates the bulk of his immense contribution. But while it was as a wheelchair basketball player that he earned the distinction of becoming a Paralympian, it was his Paralympic experience that introduced him to wheelchair tennis. “I got picked for the 1984 Paralympic (basketball) team, and it was when I was playing wheelchair basketball at the Games that I saw the wheelchair tennis demonstration involving Brad Parks and a few other players on the two tennis courts at Stoke Mandeville,” says McElhatton. “It was that demo event that ultimately led to wheelchair tennis getting into the Paralympics in Seoul in 1988, but I had no idea of that significance at the time, I just thought that it looked like fun,” he adds. “So, after the Games, myself and a few wheelchair basketball friends ended up going to Berkhamsted Tennis Club and hitting a few balls, and that was really the beginning of wheelchair tennis in Great Britain.”
A former engineering apprentice for British Airways, McElhatton was paralysed in a road traffic accident while cycling to work in 1979. After rehabilitation at the world-renowned Stoke Mandeville spinal unit, he took up wheelchair basketball. “Basketball was quite seasonal at that time, so wheelchair tennis offered a nice balance, as it was something you could do outdoors during the summer and it complemented basketball,” he recalls. “For a few years I did both – I played basketball in the winter and tennis in the summer.”
One of a group of players who conducted wheelchair tennis demonstrations around Britain in an effort to promote and develop the sport, McElhatton eventually started to travel overseas to compete in the likes of the Israel Open, the French Open and the US Open – the latter two now part of the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour Super Series, not to be confused with the Grand Slam events. “Once I’d seen those tournaments I thought it would be great if we could have a tournament in Britain, and one day myself and my close friend Noel McShane attended a meeting about disability tennis hosted by the then Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) Trust in London,” he said. “Out of that meeting we got to meet Sue Wolstenholme and Danielle Lewis and between us we went on to organise the first British Open at Bishops Park in London in 1990.”
During his early trips to the US Open, McElhatton would attend meetings of what was then became the International Wheelchair Tennis Federation (IWTF), on behalf of the players. “There was the likes of Brad Parks and Graeme Watts there, but I think I represented the voice of the lower-ranked players. I eventually joined the committee and one thing led to another,” McElhatton explained as he recounts his pathway to playing an integral role in the development of wheelchair tennis.
Chairman of the National Wheelchair Tennis Association of Great Britain for over 35 years from the mid-1980s, he was the longest-serving president of the International Wheelchair Tennis Association (IWTA), a role he fulfilled from 1997 until 2012 after succeeding Parks and Pierre Fusade of France.
“At that stage we were in the process of moving the IWTF across to become the International Wheelchair Tennis Association (IWTA) after wheelchair tennis was fully integrated into the ITF,” says McElhatton, who was also a member of the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Committee from 1998 to 2015 and a member of the Jury of Appeal for the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016 Paralympic Tennis Events. “I was president until the IWTA was dissolved at the end of 2012 and transitioned to the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Committee. “In those early years one of the biggest things was to get the two-bounce rule into the Rules of Tennis, officially. That was fantastic and meant that wheelchair tennis players could play with two bounces against anyone, anywhere in the world, because it was sanctioned by the ITF,” he continues. “That was probably the biggest rule that was implemented, but to see the number of countries grow from just eight to over a hundred and to see countries from different continents come in, it was fantastic.”
McElhatton played wheelchair tennis for the love of the game, but it is his widespread role in its development that has brought most pleasure. “To be honest I was a pretty average player, but I loved the sport,” he says. “When I got involved in coaching and helping to develop players, that was my biggest enjoyment and my proudest. Seeing young players develop was a real thrill. “I coached on the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Junior Camp that took place alongside the Dutch Open for many years, I coached the GB junior team, and also the GB quad team at the first World Team Cup quad competition in Barcelona in 1998. My own personal tennis achievements are minor compared to what we managed to do for growing the game.”
Alongside his various roles in wheelchair tennis, McElhatton has worked for WheelPower, the national umbrella charity for wheelchair sport in Britain, since 1987. For over 20 years he has led the organisation as its chief executive, based at its home at Stoke Mandeville. With so many years of service and memories to recall, 2012 stands out as a particular highlight. “London 2012 was a huge milestone. Having played wheelchair basketball in 1984 at Stoke Mandeville, when the Games had really been in danger of not happening, to then see what happened in London, you couldn’t have had a bigger contrast,” he says.
“To see Stoke Mandeville recognised around the world as the birthplace of the Paralympic Movement, to host the torch relay and to carry the torch myself, that was a huge honour. And then to attend the opening ceremony and see Peter Norfolk carrying the GB flag and the wheelchair tennis players at the head of the ParalympicsGB delegation, players like Louise Hunt and Jordanne Whiley who I’d know from when they first started out in the sport, that gave me a huge sense of pride at their achievement.”
While McElhatton could see the contrast between his first Paralympic experience in 1984 to the events of London 2012, today there is another contrast as the world seeks to overcome the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. “For all sport, and wheelchair tennis is no exception, I think that how we come back from coronavirus will be really important – particularly in terms of how the sport continues to develop and get new people playing, and introducing them to the incredible benefits of playing wheelchair tennis,” he said. “The benefits are not just physical – there’s also the social aspects of playing the sport at grass roots level. That will then filter through to the UNIQLO Tour and the major events,” he continued. “As long as the foundations are in place and we remain inclusive and welcoming, to me that’s the important thing.”
“When we started wheelchair tennis it was about trying to be as inclusive as we could be and having as many disabled people playing the sport as possible. For me, that’s where I see classification playing its role - in making sure that we continue to welcome as many people to the sport as possible.”
McElhatton’s passion for wheelchair tennis and wheelchair sport is evident in every nuance and the enthusiasm with which he speaks. It’s a passion that has also resulted in many wider accolades. In 2013 he was the recipient of the ITF’s Brad Parks Award, and in 2020 he was presented with an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list for services to disability sport. “I’ve gone from being an administrator and someone helping wheelchair tennis to grow, to basically being a fan these days,” he says. “I love watching it as often as I can, if it’s on TV or is livestreamed and, like all fans, you have your favourite players and over the years there have been some incredible players. “We have some tremendous characters in the sport and some fantastic athletes – people who not only represent the sport well, but also represent themselves well. You see that in this current generation of players who are so professional and dedicated. The standard of play now is phenomenal. Long may it continue to be one of the blue riband events of Paralympic sport.”
It’s apparent that McElhatton regards wheelchair tennis as an extended family and one that he’s immensely proud to be a part of. “There were people like Brad, who made such an important contribution at the beginning and people like Randy Snow and Chantal Vandierendonck. But for me, the sport wouldn’t be where it is now without all the people behind the scenes,” he says. “People like Ellen de Lange. Wheelchair tennis wouldn’t be where it is without the contribution that Ellen has made over the years, and you can replicate that across the world. “In every country there will be people behind the scenes that have made it happen – those unsung heroes that enable the players to achieve their dreams.”
When it comes to enabling players to achieve those dreams, McElhatton sees the levels and distribution of prize money and renumeration for players as an area for development, “enabling players to make a living from the sport.”
“For the depth of players, not just the ones playing in the Grand Slams, they need to be earning enough money from the sport to thrive and to enjoy a decent life,” he said. “Otherwise it becomes quite challenging and you end up with just an elite tour and not the growth and development of the sport.”