By Giri Nathan
All four of the majors now host a wheelchair tennis tournament, and the US Open has been hosting theirs since 2005. But this year, for the first time, there’s also a junior bracket, the first of its kind at any Slam. The top seed in the girls’ singles draw is Maylee Phelps, a 16-year-old from Portland, Ore. Maylee’s been busy this year, hitting the courts in France, Portugal, Canada, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and her season heated up in August when she won the Pacific Northwest Sectional Wheelchair Championships. When I met her on Thursday, she’d just started her Open campaign with a smooth 6–0, 6–0 win over Germany’s Ela Porges. On her feet were the fresh kicks she custom-designed for a hospital fundraiser: gradients of hot pink, lavender, and teal; a silhouette of a wheelchair player; and a spine graphic to represent spina bifida. Nike had given her a coloring sheet to fill in, but she instead broke out the iPad “so that I could get more colors into it.”
Maylee first picked up a racquet three years ago, and now travels an hour and a half to Salem almost every day to train, fitting her homeschool schedule around her tennis. As far as favorite drills go, she likes to sharpen her short-court game with volleying. Hitting ground strokes to cones is more of a grind; she prefers live match play, and lately her coach has been focusing on serves and returns to tune up for the Open. Even though she lost the match, she says her favorite moment of the season was a seesaw three-setter at the Amjoy Cup in the Netherlands, because it marked the peak of her mental and physical game. (Her opponent in that match, Ruby Bishop of Great Britain, is the No. 2 seed in the girls’ draw this week, and she also advanced on Thursday.) While we chatted in the shade in the media garden, a few fanboys—fellow junior players, by the looks of their lanyards—swung by to say their hellos and wish her luck in her next round.
With both brackets freshly in place at this Open, junior and adult wheelchair players have gotten a chance to hang out with each other, and even meet Brad Parks, who first conceptualized the game in 1977. That morning, Maylee had spoken to one of her idols, Dana Mathewson, currently the No. 10 woman in the world and the winner of wheelchair doubles at Wimbledon this year. The men’s and women’s wheelchair fields doubled in size at this year’s Open, expanding to 16 singles players and eight doubles teams. For the first time, total prize money in wheelchair events exceeds $1 million. Megan Rose, a former college star and coach who competed on the WTA Tour, is now a managing director of major events at the USTA, where she’s been working to grow the wheelchair game. “Hopefully, there’s a kid in a chair here [at the Open] who sees this as a possibility for them. I think the stats show that a lot of times, kids and parents don’t feel like they can go to college and do big things like these athletes are doing. So if we can just even change the life of one kid, it’s well worth what’s gone into it,” she said.
Maylee will next square up against Brazil’s Jade Moreira Lanei, who also happens to be her partner in the doubles draw. After the Open, her next trip will be to Tuscaloosa, home of the Alabama Open, where she’s the defending champ. Zooming out, she hopes to compete in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles, though at least one supporter suspects she might make the cut even sooner. “I think now—2024. Let’s move our goals, c’mon, let’s get you on that team,” said Rose, reverting to coachspeak for just a minute.
Above: Maylee Phelps in the process of double bageling Ela Porges of Germany during the Junior Girls Wheelchair quarterfinals yesterday. (Getty)