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Forehands on four wheels
20 years after giving up all sports, Juan Bosco Sandigo thriving at wheelchair tennis with the help of his coach
Shortly after leaving the hospital in 1988, the first piece of sports equipment Juan Bosco Sandigo picked up was a tennis racket.
But at the time, there was no interest.
As far as he was concerned, his life in a wheelchair was going to be a life free of sports.
Twenty years later, Jonathan Gutierrez changed his mind.
"When I saw his game, that's what I dreamed of," he said.
Less than a year after forming their player-coach partnership, the two joined forces as a doubles team last month to win a Yuma Tennis Association-hosted tournament.
"I feel confident with him and always push it with him," said Gutierrez, who is able-bodied. "It's different motions, but we try to play without any adjustments. When we start playing people hit it kind of soft, but once he hits it at them, it's on."
Sandigo and Gutierrez went undefeated in their run through the one-day, pro-eight set tournament, winning 8-6 in the finals. For Sandigo it was just his second competitive event in a wheelchair, and his first trophy as a tennis player.
"He's been playing and winning since he was a kid, and he's probably the best player in Yuma," Sandigo said of his coach. "But what he did with me is something different.
"It's kind of like when you have an old, rusty car, but it still runs and the engine is not so bad. Jonathan saw potential, gave me some extra features with a topspin shot, dusted me off and brought me to the game."
The two men met when Gutierrez's bride to-be recommended Jonathan as a tennis coach for Sandigo's nephew. But not long after watching Gutierrez play, Sandigo found himself wanting to be the one out on the court.
"I played in high school, but I was still a beginner," said Sandigo, a three-sport athlete and state champion wrestler at Antelope Union High School. "Had I learned from him like this 20-some years ago, it would have been different."
Gutierrez, 28, was teaching some of the top Mexican junior players in Guadalajara before moving to Yuma two years ago. Working with a wheelchair player, however, brought new challenges but a highly motivated pupil in Sandigo.
"I had to learn a lot of new things like how to move the chair and hit the ball at different angles," Gutierrez said. "But the difference with Juan and other people I coach is how much he wants to learn and wants to be a strong player. He's always working to be better, and I like that."
Figuring his way around the court took some time for Sandigo, too, and is, by his own admission, the weak part in his game. He purchased an "antique" tennis-specific chair built with two extra wheels to prevent tipping, but chasing after a ball on any number of wheels can still be a mental obstacle.
"Sometimes I forget that I'm in a wheelchair. The problem is I've played before, and there's that muscle memory that you send out to go after a ball, but nothing happens. You have to remember to move with the chair and not your legs."
Fortunately for Sandigo and Gutierrez, the biggest shot of their YTA tournament required no chasing after for Sandigo. Down match point in their second match, he dumped a self-defense volley over to extend the tiebreaker, and the duo eventually won the match.
"I was covering the alley and it came right at me, and I just stuck my racket out," he said. "There's a good communication there with us. He notices things that I don't because of my wheelchair condition. He told me if I can't move, I can have my racket up and still get to balls."
Sandigo hopes to improve his game enough to play singles at national tournaments, provided he can find a way to pay for his expenses. Gutierrez said his mobility was not quite up to par with other competitors at his first event in Las Vegas, but few could match Sandigo's strokes.
"It took 20 years to accept this, and now this is something I really enjoy doing, and that's helped me a great deal," Sandigo said. "I'm older, so there's no lack of acceptance with reality, and with the right attitude and right teaching it has been a blessing for me."