Early on the morning of Jan. 20, 1996, Enrique Aguilar pulled off Interstate 40 near the Big I and attempted to fix a flat tire. Suddenly, a drunk driver swerved into him and sped away. Aguilar’s right leg took the brunt of the hit. Then 28, he wound up an above-the knee amputee.
Aguilar had been a builder of custom adobe homes but soon realized he could no longer do that. He took disability and eventually got married. With his wife, Rosemary, gainfully employed, Aguilar became a stay-at-home dad for their son, Emiliano, now 14.
Emiliano often played soccer at a makeshift field at Los Ranchos Park in the North Valley while his father watched. The park adjoins some tennis courts where a small group of men in wheelchairs frequently played. One day one of the men, Bob Peirce, noticed Aguilar on crutches.
“Why don’t you join us?” Peirce asked.
“Nah,” said Aguilar, who had never been much of an athlete.
Peirce wouldn’t stop there. “He kept bugging me,” Aguilar says.
Eventually, Aguilar gave it a try.
“The first time I got into a chair, I think I hit the ball right once. It was a lot harder than it looked.”
Wheelchair tennis rules are nearly identical to regular tennis.
“There are two differences,” says Aguilar. “One, you’re in a wheelchair. Two, you get two bounces to return a ball.”
Competitive tennis players are rated 1.5 to 7.0. Wheelchair tennis players are rated “A,” “B” or “C.”
Aguilar, a “C” player, was soon hooked. He convinced Rosemary that he needed a wheelchair made especially for tennis. He paid $2,500 for a used sports model, which turns on a court much easier than an ordinary wheelchair.
Aguilar began hitting at Los Ranchos with Peirce and his friends, Darlo Vanderwilt, Jesus Apodaca, and Shelley Burt, all of them “A” players. Previously, the men had practiced at what then was Four Hills Country Club. The history of wheelchair tennis in Albuquerque can be traced back to the early 1980s. But outside of the small group at Los Ranchos, wheelchair tennis in the city had fallen into dormancy.
Aguilar decided to change that.
He joined the Northern New Mexico Tennis Association’s governing board this year – specifically to organize a wheelchair tennis program. He soon learned that most tennis courts in the city are not wheelchair accessible. He believed wheelchair athletes should have a tennis site that was easy to enter and leave, and be located in a central part of the city. The city-run Jerry Cline Tennis Center, he saw, fit those requirements.
Aguilar talked to the city Parks and Recreation Department and officials gave him one court.
“I fussed about that,” he says, “until they gave me another. The city has been really great to us.”
On a Saturday earlier this spring, Aguilar arranged an open-house workshop at Jerry Cline. In mid-April, he organized sessions – named the Wheelaround – on Wednesday nights. Periodically, tennis pros have volunteered their time to help with instruction.
“We’d like to have more people come out,” says Aguilar, who admits to stopping strangers on the street in wheelchairs and telling them about Wheelaround.
Wheelchair tennis is open to anyone with limitations in their lower extremities. Because you cannot play in an everyday wheelchair, Aguilar has been working on getting more tennis-only chairs.
Dagoberto Saenz, 16, has become a regular at the Wheelaround. An errant bullet fired from a gun struck him in the spine when he was six years old. The next thing Saenz remembers is waking up in a hospital unable to walk.
“I am a ‘B’ player, maybe,” Saenz says. “I can move around the court OK. My backhand just needs some work.”
Spoken like a lot of tennis players who aren’t in wheelchairs.