Jacksonville Sports Day

Tallahassee’s Patel Named USTA Florida Tennis Volunteer of the Month

Sunil Patel practices his game at the Tom Brown Park courts. (Photo by Joe Rondone/Democrat)

Long-time competitive wheelchair tennis player Sunil Patel has for that same long time been the sole face of wheelchair tennis in Tallahassee. Now that is starting to change with some help from the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association (FDOA), the USTA, and his own volunteer efforts.

A latecomer to tennis at the age of 34, Patel took up the game approximately 20 years ago as an amateur and quickly rose up the competitive ranks. These days, in addition to competing in national and international tournaments, he shares his love of the game by teaching disabled children the game. He hopes to spur their love for tennis and creating a next generation of wheelchair players in Tallahassee.

“[I do it] just to assist and help others learn the game of tennis, especially disabled and challenged children that never have played the sport,” Patel says.

 Born with the birth defect phocomelia, Patel has no legs and also an affected right hand. Attending a sports camp for those with disabilities in Gainesville in 1999, he received his first introduction to organized tennis and became hooked. Less than two years later he was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the amateur wheelchair “C” division.

“I like the camaraderie and making new friends from all around the world that played the sport,” Patel told the Tallahassee Democrat of his eventual tournament travels. “There’s 70 nations from around the world playing in an event. There’s people that can serve 120 miles per hour from a wheelchair.”

Growing up he didn’t use a wheelchair but “used stilts like legs” to walk, and has been independent from a young age. Offer to help him and you might get a curt but polite ‘No thank you.’

“I’m not trying to be rude, but I don’t need it,” he says. “I drive myself. I’m fully independent. I can do everything from cooking to cleaning, all of it, fully by myself. I’ve done it all.”

Since the opening of the USTA National Campus in Orlando he has traveled to the Lake Nona area to take advantage of a wheelchair tennis program the USTA has expanded since opening. Now the “Home of American Tennis” in Orlando offers professional development training for nationally-competitive wheelchair players.

“Sunil is an excellent wheelchair player who has volunteered for a number of years with adaptive tennis, and in particular with the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association,” says USTA Florida Tennis Service Representative for the Tallahassee area George English. “He has also served as a captain for a number of USTA League adult teams.”

Last July Patel was at the USTA National Campus, captaining his team out of the Forestmeadows Park and Athletic Center in Tallahassee to the USTA Florida 40 & Over League Sectionals Championship in the men’s 3.0 division.

“Sunil is very passionate about tennis, and has worked hard to get special-needs children interested in playing,” English said.

Where does he find the time to work with disabled players while holding down a full-time job and training for national and international tournaments? “I volunteer because I love to help others,” says the man affectionately called “Sunny” by his friends. “I love the game of tennis.”

USTA Florida congratulates and thanks Sunil Patel as the May 2019 Florida Tennis Volunteer of the Month for keeping wheelchair tennis on the map in Tallahassee and giving his time and energy to growing the game with local disabled youth.

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