by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Smith Hardy
Kevin Ratliff used to spend all year waiting for the annual Special Olympics tennis tournament, his lone opportunity to play competitive tennis. In 2007, his mother, Debbie Ratliff, decided that he and his friends should be able to play the sport they love all year long, so she—along with fellow founders Kirstie Marx and Sue Wisdom—collaborated with the North Carolina Tennis Association to create a program to provide tennis opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities. It is now called the Abilities Tennis Association of North Carolina (ATANC), and it offers free clinics and tournaments to athletes ranging in age from eight to 70 who have intellectual disabilities like Autism, Down Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome. Under the leadership of a dedicated board and passionate volunteers, the program has taken off, and people all over the country are noticing. The United States Tennis Association shined a spotlight on the nonprofit, awarding ATANC the prestigious 2018 USTA National Adaptive Tennis Community Service Award. As for Kevin Ratliff, he now plays tennis weekly. And this fall, he will be one of twenty-four ATANC athletes to walk out onto Arthur Ashe stadium in New York City—the biggest stage in tennis—before a U.S. Open primetime match. It’s the first-ever pre-match demonstration by an adaptive program on Ashe Stadium at night.
Area coaches in cities from Wilmington to Asheville teach backhands and topspin, but the benefits for the athletes in the Abilities Tennis program far exceed the tennis skills they learn. Jinni Hoggard, head coach in Greensboro, says ATANC has formed a family of tennis lovers all over the state: “The clinics and tournaments give the athletes so much. They get to meet other athletes with disabilities, make new friends, get great exercise and just have fun. We’re a tight-knit group,” she says. While intellectual disabilities include certain limitations in cognitive functioning—things like communication and social skills—when the athletes are on the court, they can let loose, play at any level and enjoy a program suited just for them.
Executive Director Lou Welch has grown the organization to give over 400 athletes across North Carolina the chance not only to learn tennis, but to form meaningful relationships, gaining the skills to succeed on the court and off. “Until I started this job,” Welch says, “I had never seen a tennis player run to the net to high-five their opponent after just being aced.” Conversely, there is no shortage of joy at ATANC events. “There are so many huggers that sometimes Allan has to designate a no-hugging zone,” Welch says of Raleigh coach Allan Goldberg.
A major goal of Abilities Tennis is “unified doubles,” whereby those with intellectual disabilities partner up to play doubles with non-impaired players in a competitive setting that promotes inclusion. Last summer, through ATANC, Welch befriended a mother whose twelve-year-old daughter has autism and loves tennis. When Welch saw that mother again eight months later, she was stunned to find that the woman had lost more than 100 pounds. “She told me that Abilities Tennis motivated her to do it,” Welch recalls, “her daughter needed a unified doubles partner.” The mother-daughter duo competed together in last year’s tournament in Wilmington. It’s not the first time Welch has seen the way her program can change a whole family. “It gives you so much perspective,” says ATANC President Cameron Rosenow, “And if it weren’t for Lou, none of this would be happening.”
At venues around Raleigh—often Millbrook Exchange Park, the Raleigh Racquet Club and North Hills Club—tennis enthusiasts volunteer to teach and play through ATANC. Some are retired coaches, former players or paid professionals, and all are invested in the players and the mission of increasing the availability of tennis through a ninety-minute clinic that, for many athletes, is the highlight of their week. And it’s not just about the athletes themselves; it’s about the parents and siblings standing outside the fences, families with commonalities who can connect and create a community.
When the representatives from ATANC stand out on the court at the U.S. Open August 28, thirteen-year-old Brogan DeBuhr of Raleigh will flip the coin for the professional players to see who serves first. DeBuhr, who has participated in the Abilities Tennis program for four years, says, “Winning medals is my favorite part, but I also love going to the tournament in Lake Junaluska! I love that I get to play doubles with my dad and play in the mountains. Last year, we had a blast,” she says, “I didn’t want to leave when it was over.”
DeBuhr’s mother, Dana DeBuhr, is so grateful for ATANC that she can’t help but get emotional at her daughter’s tennis matches: “Little moments of kindness and joy are just sprinkled throughout this organization,” she says. A few years ago, Brogan DeBuhr was playing one of her first-ever short-court matches against a more experienced player who could tell she was struggling. “Her opponent just stopped playing, walked to the net, and told her how great she was, that she could do it, and not to give up,” Dana DeBuhr says. “For the remainder of the match, he continued cheering her on, and she did the same for him.” There lies the real value of the program, the reason the tennis world is looking at ATANC and taking notes: it is tennis in a different light, where someone is always lifting up someone else, where “love” isn’t just a word for keeping score—it’s the name of the game.