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Rydberg's back in the game

East Ridge girls tennis coach Jon Rydberg (center) will will represent the USA in the men's singles and doubles at the US Open in New York from Sept. 8-12. Submitted Photo.

For the past two years, Jon Rydberg said he has been living vicariously through his girls tennis team at East Ridge.

But next week, he'll be back.

Rydberg, who was injured in an accident when he was 13 months old and is now in a wheelchair, will represent the USA in the men's singles and doubles at the US Open in New York from Sept. 8-12.

It will be Rydberg's third US Open. Rydberg has previously been ranked as the No. 1 wheelchair tennis player in the United States, is a two-time Paralympian (2004 and 2008) and an eight-time United States Wheelchair World Cup team member.

"This is one of the coolest tournaments," Rydberg said. "But, I wouldn't call it the biggest, because our World Cup is always fun and there is a lot of competition there and it's country versus country. But, on an individual level, this is my biggest tournament outside of the Paralympics stuff."

Mainly because of his obligation to the East Ridge tennis program, Rydberg has only played in three tournaments in the past year, while most players in the US Open have already played over 20 matches this year.

The latest United States Tennis Association (USTA) rankings have Rydberg slotted as No. 100 in the world.

"Coaching has limited my tournament play," Rydberg said. "That's where I'm lacking right now is just playing matches. Playing matches and keeping up that ranking is the hard part. Luckily, the US Open is big enough that it's an excused absence."

But, Rydberg said he has been training five to six days a week for two hours a day over the course of the past month and he is "slowly getting better and better."

"You can hit great in practice, but things always change when you get into a tournament and when you actually have to compete against other players," Rydberg said. "The competition part of it sometimes takes some getting used to. But, it's OK right now."

At the US Open, 20 players from around the world will compete in the wheelchair tennis tournament for a total purse of $100,000 -- the highest total prize money offered by any of the Grand Slam wheelchair events.

The event, now in its fifth year, sees the top-seven ranked singles players enter -- according to the ITF ranking as of July 26 -- and one wild card selected for both the men's and women's event.

The men's field features world No. 1 and defending men's singles champion Shingo Kunieda of Japan, who lost just four games in three US Open matches last year, as well as two-time men's singles champion Robin Ammerlaan of the Netherlands.

Rydberg is this year's men's wild card.

"I don't really have a lot of expectations," Rydberg said. "Without having, really, played any tournaments, I hope I can just go in there and play some good tennis. I just want to compete and hold my own. If it comes out to be a win, that's great. But, I just want to play well."

Rydberg, originally of Pine City, has been playing tennis since he was 11 years old and, despite being in a wheelchair, was the captain of his high school tennis team in Pine City during his senior year. He said he loves coaching, but would rather play tennis full-time for a living, at this point. However, he said that is nearly impossible, financially.

"If I could I would definitely be a person who played 20 tournaments a year, made a good living off of it and coached after I couldn't play anymore."

Rydberg said American wheelchair tennis players have a problem getting sponsorships and financial aid for tournaments, unlike the European players.

"They are treated very professionally, they have big-time sponsors, they get paid to play, and they get their tournaments paid for and travel paid for. We're in a different boat over here," Rydberg said.

Rydberg said he felt it was because of the perception of the sport by the public.

"It's wheelchair tennis, but in Europe, if you're one of the top players in the world, you're treated like any other top player in the world in any other athletic event," Rydberg said. "Unfortunately, here, it's not like that.

"I think it's just a mentality. They treat wheelchair/disabled sports on a par with their able-bodied sports. They treat it professionally and, financially, it shows. They have a distinct advantage because of it, because they can train year round. That's what they get paid to do."

For most of his tournaments, Rydberg is on his own financially, except for events where he plays on a team for the United States, then the USTA pays the bill.

"Luckily, with the US Open, we get good prize money back and we get a per diem for hotel costs and stuff like that," Rydberg said. "With this tournament you come out ahead win or lose, but that's very rare on our tour."

Just days prior to the US Open, Rydberg said he wasn't nervous -- that doesn't happen anymore, when he is playing tennis.

"I'm just excited," Rydberg said. "I miss competing in tournaments a lot. Coaching is a great filler, because I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the girls improve and compete. But, you can only watch so many players play until you really want to get back there yourself."