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Gulfport teenager makes rapid ascent in his new sport: wheelchair tennis

Paralyzed four years ago, Chris Herman, 14, took up wheelchair tennis 1½ years ago and is now on the junior national team.

Courtesy of Herman family

Paralyzed four years ago, Chris Herman, 14, took up wheelchair tennis 1½ years ago and is now on the junior national team.

David Herman said when his son Chris first started playing tennis a year and a half ago, he hoped the Gulfport teenager would be able to hit a few back over the net.

Now the father is trying to keep up with the 14-year-old.

"It's amazing," David said. "He gets out there and his game has gotten to a level where he could beat a lot of able-bodied kids."

You see, Chris Herman is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident four years ago. But he hasn't let it keep him down, with his rapid rise in his favorite sport bringing him to Seoul, South Korea, today for the 17th annual Paribas World Team Cup wheelchair tennis tournament. The youngest of three teens selected for the junior national team, Herman is representing the United States in singles and doubles this week, with more than 160 players from 25 countries playing in the arena that hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics.

"I was kind of hopeful I might get on the team this year, but when we got the call, it was just incredible," Chris said. "I felt so happy. It's just amazing how I've gotten to be here."

David said he's impressed with how his son remained positive, even after his life changed in the September 2008 crash that resulted in a spinal cord injury. Chris doesn't remember much of it, keeping his focus on the future.

"In the beginning it was pretty rough, because I was just thrown into this," Chris said. "But I try not to think about it and tried to get through it. I just didn't want to sit at home. I wanted to go do something."

So Chris tried track and field, ice hockey and basketball. "But tennis was just the one that really clicked for me," he said.

Chris practices almost every day, hitting with his dad at the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club, where he works with a coach once a week. His brother Michael, 10, and sisters, Courtney, 16, and Teagan, 5, help shag balls for him.

But first, like most eighth-graders, Chris has to finish his homework. He's home-schooled, taking classes online through Florida Connection. He does three or four lessons each day, with his mother, Kristi, the learning coach. Next year, however, he plans to enroll at St. Petersburg Catholic.

"I'm looking forward to it," Chris said. "I'm going to try out for the tennis team and see how I do. I think I've got a good shot."

David said the main rules difference between regular tennis and wheelchair tennis is players get two bounces instead of one. But as far as skill level, Chris has a good knack for the game, and he impressed the junior national team's coaches enough in just one year of competing in tournaments to get the nod.

"He already possesses a big serve and forehand at a young age, and the future looks really exciting for him," said John Devorss, coach of the junior national team. "We are looking for Chris to gain some valuable experience to help further his development into a top open player in the future. He will be a big part of our junior team's success for years to come."

David said Chris, as well as the entire family, has come a long way in handling the adversity and making everything feel as normal as possible. After all, David said, it could have been a lot worse.

"That's what you keep saying over and over and over after it happens, but it's tough to get through," David said. "Our whole family was thrown into this world of paralysis and wheelchairs and stuff you don't really think about. Chris, the day before the accident, is out there doing everything other kids do, playing football. The accident happens and he's in the hospital for several weeks, and you're wondering how you're going to manage. But life goes on, and you figure it out. Chris never gave up."

Chris acknowledges he doesn't know if he will ever walk again, but he is still dreaming big, hoping this week's first trip out of the country won't be his last.

"I want to see how far I can get myself in this sport, and my goal for right now is in four years try to make it to the Paralympics in Brazil," he said. "Hopefully, I'll make it."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

Gulfport teenager makes rapid ascent in his new sport: wheelchair tennis 05/20/12 [Last modified: Sunday, May 20, 2012 9:53pm]
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