ISRAEL’S NOAM GERSHONY.
(photo credit: Razi Livnat)
Nimrod Bichler, Paralympic gold-medalist Noam Gershony’s coach, had to come up
with what he calls “unconventional” solutions when training his charge to play
“Let me put it this way: Even someone who played
tennis well, standing up, and was later injured and suffers from a minor injury
will not make it to the highest levels in wheelchair tennis if he does not
invest a lot of hard work learning to ride in a wheelchair,” says the coach. “It
is not enough to be a high-level tennis player. You have to incorporate that
with a fast, efficient and correct movement on the court.”
He notes that
when a player’s wrist is fixed at a particular angle, as in Gershony’s case,
there will be techniques he will have difficulty performing.
‘forehand’ swing, for example. This is a basic swing in tennis. When someone
hits a low ball, you have to use your wrist. This action is done to lower the
head of the racket below the ball, so you can get the ball above the net. Noam
could not perform that basic activity with his wrist, because it was set [at one
angle]. I had to teach him an alternative technique, and instead of using his
wrist, I taught him that when he recognizes a low ball, he should go down with
his shoulder, so the whole right side of his body will bend. Otherwise, he could not serve a curve ball.”
A curve ball, he explains, requires the use of
“[Instead,] he can hit a serve that is called, in professional
terminology, ‘flat.’ So we took that serve to the highest level, in terms of
percentages, accuracy and strength. We had to change the existing techniques to
something unconventional, and we found solutions to some of the
In wheelchair tennis, unlike in sports like swimming and table
tennis, there are only two categories of handicap: the lighter level, for
participants with amputated limbs and paralysis, and the severe handicap level,
also called “Quad,” for players who are disabled in both their arms and their
“Of course, there are no two disabled people alike, who have the
same disability level,” says Bichler. “Even at the Quad level, there are some
whose degree of disability is more severe and some whose disabilities are
Gershony competes in the Quad category.
“After a few
months of training, Noam started to compete in a few local tournaments for
players with less severe disabilities.
I was very impressed by his mental
ability. He has a high level of concentration. I’ve noticed that during the
game, he stays close to the plan we made ahead of time, and exploits his
opponent’s weaknesses and demonstrates his own strengths,” says his
“He achieved a lot on a local level, a national level. But I knew
that international success would only come if he qualified as Quad. With a
disability as severe as his, he had no chance in the lighter handicap category
when it came to the international level.”
In July 2010, Gershony
underwent an examination in France that ultimately qualified him as
“The examination is divided into two parts,” Bichler explains. “The
first part was done in a closed room. The second took place on the court.
Examiners from the International Tennis Federation examined Noam in terms of his
arms’ functionality, since his the functionality of his legs was hardly
significant. He does use a wheelchair. They tested the way his arms operate in
terms of range of movement, upper body stability and his use of his back and ab
According to the point system the examiners used, the higher the
athlete’s functionality, the higher the score. To be a Quad, an athlete’s score
must be no higher than 10.5 points.
“Noam was borderline – a half point
more and he would have been disqualified [as Quad],” says the
After the examination, he recalls, “I took Noam for a personal
conversation. I called it ‘Tennis: Where are we going from here?’ I told him
that I know the Quad players who compete in the world tour. It was clear to me
that he was going to make it to third place in the world. I told him, ‘If you
want to go beyond that, you are going to have to work hard.’
“At that point, we
did not think of first place or an Olympic gold medal. We thought of how to get
an Olympic medal, period. Our plan was that he would participate in tournaments
that would ultimately lead him to the Olympic Games, ranked among the best four
players in the world.”
Gershony went on a series of tournaments around
the world and began making a name for himself, winning a tournament in Prague
and getting to the finals in tournaments in the US, Japan and Korea. Toward the
end of 2011, he won the Masters tournament in Belgium, where the best four
tennis players competed.
But then an unexpected twist took place: His
competitors decided to challenge his Quad categorization.
claimed that his disability was too light for this category,” Bichler continues.
“He went through an appeal in The Netherlands in November 2011. There, he was
examined in the closed room and assessed by his skills on the court. We did not
hide the fact that Noam walks with a special device he puts on his leg. The
examiners realized that Noam’s improved functionality on the court had to do
with a device we purchased for him, which enables him to have better control on
the wheelchair and to respond to every movement the body makes in a better
The appeal was denied. Noam retained his Quad status, and he once
again became one of Israel’s great hopes for an Olympic Medal.