The Teaching Game

Player-coach relationships define the first 25 years of UArizona wheelchair tennis.

Spring 2024
A photograph of six individuals in wheelchairs and two others standing representing the wheelchair tennis program

UArizona’s wheelchair tennis program was the first at a U.S. college.

Photos: Chris Richards

On a bus in England in 2016, wheelchair tennis pro Bryan Barten ’99 ’02, then about 40 years old, met the coach who would alter the spin of his career. At the time, Barten was contemplating retirement — as he puts it, “not playing so much,” slowing down from a life on the sport’s world tour.

Joop Broens, though, had other ideas.

The two, Barten recalls, “just hit it off,” and Broens, who’s from Holland, invited him to hit some balls. “He started showing me some tricks and some skills,” Barten says — and soon, they were training together in Europe, working hard to maximize Barten’s potential as a quadriplegic professional athlete.

In 2018, Barten, a little older and his game refined, defeated the No. 1 player in the world in the finals of the Georgia Open. Across two decades as a pro, Barten has competed in three Paralympics for Team USA, broken into the world’s top five and captured 89 titles in singles and doubles combined. But the Georgia Open win, he says, was his biggest.

And his coach’s imprint, he feels, was all over the result.

A photograph of a man in a wheelchair hitting a tennis ball above his head

Eric Court

“I give the credit to Coach Broens — I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him,” Barten says on a sunny, mild winter afternoon at the University of Arizona’s Robson Tennis Center. “Coaches don’t get a lot of credit. They get blamed for losses, and the player gets the credit for the win.”

He knows from experience: Since 2007, Barten has coached the university’s wheelchair tennis team while maintaining his standing as one of the best players in the game. The team he helms is the nation’s first and oldest at a college or university — 25 years old this spring, to be precise, exactly half the age of the UArizona Adaptive Athletics program. It’s captured multiple national championships, was the first to offer scholarships in the sport and has helped develop five Paralympians beyond Barten.

Barten came to Tucson in 1997 and enrolled at the university in 1998, three years after breaking his neck in a car accident in Michigan, his home state. He was a backseat passenger, and the wreck left him with at least partial paralysis in all four limbs. Before his injury, Barten had been an athlete all his life. He had played basketball in high school.

He came to the desert for the weather — no longer would he need to push his wheelchair through snow — and the university’s offerings in adaptive sports. But there was no wheelchair tennis team then, only wheelchair rugby, basketball and track. He’d started playing the sport back home and wanted to get serious.

“Hey, can we do tennis?” he remembers asking then-director of adaptive athletics Dave Herr-Cardillo. Herr-Cardillo’s answer: “Sure.”

Barten played for the newly formed team until 2002, when he earned his master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. He then worked for the Disability Resource Center for five years, helping ensure accessibility at the university for students with disabilities. But in 2007, Herr-Cardillo asked Barten to become the coach of the tennis team.

“I fought that for a while, but he insisted that I change my profession. And I thank him every day since then, because it’s been a great job,” Barten says. “The relationships, the opportunity that we were able to provide to people through tennis — and just to see what that turns into for people in their lives — is amazing. Way bigger than tennis, what we’re doing here in these last 25 years."

Not to mention that Barten has become for other players what Broens was for him: The coach with the bag of tricks. Someone who makes the previously out-of-reach feel achievable.

A photograph of a man in a wheelchair wearing a red shirt hitting a tennis ball passionately

Den Baseda

Among Barten’s current acolytes: Den Baseda, who is pursuing his master’s in biomedical engineering.

Baseda, in contrast to his coach, did not choose the university to compete; instead, he’s here on a Peace Corps Coverdell Fellowship, which defrays the cost of graduate studies for returned volunteers. Baseda served in Namibia from 2014 to 2016, teaching math and science. He then returned to his adoptive hometown — Charlotte, North Carolina — to assist refugee youth as a member of AmeriCorps.

Baseda’s Indigenous family of 10 arrived from Vietnam when he was 13, moving into an apartment of three bedrooms and one and a half baths in the immigrant neighborhood of Green Oaks. His father would talk about needing more space for everyone and not having the money. But after two years, the family moved into a home provided by Habitat for Humanity, with room enough for all. The experience changed Baseda, 36, who today speaks not about what he lacks — all muscle function in his right leg and some in his left, for instance — but about what he has been given.

“Ever since then, I made it my life goal to be able to continue to help as much as I can, anywhere and everywhere I can,” he says. “Every two years, my hair will grow long enough for me to donate it to Wigs for Kids and Locks of Love, which make wigs for cancer patients. People may not realize it, but every little bit does help, especially for a family that has gone through so much.”

A photograph of a man in a wheelchair focused as he hits a tennis ball

Court ranks among the top 100 players in the world for his classification.

Baseda is competing for both the wheelchair tennis and the handcycling team while pursuing his degree. Barten says Baseda shows a drive to improve that reminds him of himself. He mentions a Sunday night in January when the temperature was just 37 degrees. The team didn’t have an official practice that evening, but an assistant coach spotted Baseda on the court. The assistant took a picture and told Barten, who sent his player a quick text: “This is what we like to see.”

“He’s one of those guys that has the heart,” Barten says. “I don’t know where it’s going to take him, but with that kind of drive and passion, he can go anywhere he wants."

Baseda played tennis with his brothers and sister as a kid. Back then, he used crutches on the court, diving and then pushing himself back up if the ball was beyond reach. So, last fall, Barten spent a couple of weeks just showing him how to move in a wheelchair.

Baseda doesn’t take his coach’s willingness to help for granted. “He’s always like, ‘Hey, I see the eagerness. I want to help you get there,’” Baseda says. “Coach Barten’s really important, being that he’s always there.”

Baseda knows that honing his game will take time and repetition, and that truth doesn’t seem to faze him. “I can’t just go from 1 to 10,” he says. “You’ve got to take it a step at a time.” And for both him and his coach, the meaning is in the journey — in the quiet hours spent hitting ball after fuzzy yellow ball, hoping to get a little better with the racquet and chair than they’ve been.

It’s what’s kept Barten in the sport all these years — long past the time when he pondered retirement, long past the time when his coach stepped in, allowing him to get where he once couldn’t.

“I’ve been playing for 20 years, and I’m still learning,” Barten says. “Constantly learning in this sport — learning about myself, learning about the game. The game constantly shows you new things. But that’s what I love about tennis. You’re never done with this sport. The training that I’ve gone through in my life — I didn’t realize it when it was happening, but I’m using all the stuff that I learned from my coach.”


A photograph of one man in a wheelchair smiling and another man in a wheelchair focused with his eyes down

Baseda and Adam Finney

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