These past few months have felt like a fairytale! It took a while before I realised I was awarded a wildcard for the US Open, and even longer to grasp the fact that I won the tournament. I went on to claim the doubles title in Paris as well and should be participating at the Australian Open next year, should the tournament take place in these troubled times.
The wildcard at the US Open wasn’t a no-brainer at all. At majors, only four players are in the draw in quads and in New York it’s usually the Top 3 players plus an American wildcard. But before the tournament started I was No.4 in the world, and showed great results by winning titles and reaching many finals. It looked like they couldn’t just ignore me and award the wildcard to an American outside the Top 10.
Just being in New York was an incredible experience in itself. Two years ago I visited Wimbledon as a fan and was left amazed. Being able to actually participate at a major felt surreal. To be in the same room as the greats and see them going about their business was unreal. I’ve trained years and years to be able to live this life. I see my success as a reward for all the hard work I’ve put in.
I’ve experienced a number of unforgettable moments at the US Open. One day, looking down from the player restaurant, I saw Serena Williams practise on the very court I was supposed to be hitting on later. She was there with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, whom I knew from a wheelchair tournament he organised in Nice, France.
When I arrived at the court they were still training and we had to, kind of, kick the great Serena Williams off the court as it was our turn to play. We were able to have a chat and take pictures, which was very nice of her. Then there was the photo opportunity with Dominic Thiem with both of our trophies. That was another unique experience.
Sam Schroder of the Netherlands celebrates with the championship trophy after winning his Wheelchair Quad Singles final match against Dylan Alcott of Australia on Day Fourteen of the 2020 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center
Image credit: Getty Images
There was a lot of attention after I won the US Open on social media. I tried to enjoy it as much as possible. It meant the world to me to get congratulatory messages from the likes of Kim Clijsters and Billie Jean King.
The wheelchair quads category isn’t as well-known as regular wheelchair tennis yet, so the attention we do get is very important. The difference with quads, as opposed to regular wheelchair tennis, is that we have issues with several body parts. Not just with our legs, but at least with one hand, arm or shoulder as well.
When I started playing tennis I was able to hold my tennis racket, but once a ball hit the strings the racket would fly out of my hand. I was born with split-hand/split-foot syndrome, meaning I only have one finger per hand and I’m missing large parts of both my feet and toes.
Most tennis players with similar issues tape their racket to their hand. I did the same until I crossed paths with a company that developed a special brace for me, tailored to fit my hand. It’s like a glove, that can be screwed tight to my racket.
There are not too many wheelchair quad players at the top level at this moment. Hopefully that will change next year. We want to grow and compete with six or eight of us at the Grand Slam events going forward. In the current system only four players get the chance to fight for those big amounts of points.
Luckily I’m part of the select few now, but the bigger the draws are, the better it is for the sport in general. Having said that, outside the Grand Slam tournaments the draw sizes are bigger, with up to 24 players. Don’t be fooled by our small numbers though, because the competition is fierce.
It’s pro sports, so you’re not too close with any of your rivals. Obviously you get along better with some than others, but the most important thing is to help and push each other forward to reach new heights.
I have never lost hope in becoming a pro athlete. Even colon cancer back in 2017 couldn’t break my spirit. I might have been afraid, but I trusted I would come out on top. Tennis helped me through the difficult times. During my period of treatment I kept hitting balls for 15 minutes every now and then.
Since my comeback I’m able to enjoy every single moment on court. I keep fighting till the end, regardless of the score. Giving up is never an option. While tennis helped me when I suffered from cancer, my experience of beating cancer is currently helping me at tennis.
This career path requires a lot of hard work, while there isn’t too much prize money involved. Especially the regular tour events are not capable of writing big cheques. At those tournaments you lose money, even if you become the champion. When you win a Grand Slam tournament you can make some profit though.
Hopefully the prize money will grow as we gain more publicity and popularity. For now, us wheelchair players depend on sponsors to make a career work.
I have some partners and family that support me and as a so called ‘A-status’ athlete and I receive a monthly stipend from the Dutch Olympic Committee to pay my dues. It’s very helpful, even if it’s not enough to contribute to my travels, since I’m on the road for over 20 weeks a year.
Going forward I will continue to focus on the process rather than obsessing over results. I only found out after winning the US Open that I will climb the rankings to No.3. Not concentrating on these things too much is the way to go for me.
I just have to make sure I improve my game and then the results will follow automatically. I’m on the rise and, as a Dutchman, it’s an honour to be part of my country’s rich wheelchair tennis history, with Esther Vergeer as the all-time great. I’m afraid I won’t break her records, but I intend to achieve great things of my own.
Follow Sam Schroder on Twitter (@SamWCTennis) and Instagram (@schroder.sam)