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Good start for Team USA at 2016 Paralympic Games

Dana Mathewson and Kaitlyn Verfuerth on Day 1 of the Paralympics.
September 10, 2016 05:50 PM

By Steve Goldberg, special to USTA.com

RIO DE JANEIRO – "It was an incredible day," said USA Wheelchair Tennis coach Dan James, succinctly describing his team's six-wins-in-seven-matches-start on the first day of competition in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games tournament.

Standing outside the Center Court Stadium, he couldn't wipe the smile off his face. Pleased with Thursday's draw for the most part, he knew now that his players exceeded expectations

"All of our players competed and represented our country with heart,” he said. “I'm very proud of this team. We happened to win six out of seven, but win or lose, I would have been so proud of this team either way."

The five men and four women saw action in men's and quad singles and women's doubles.

Nick Taylor, the bronze medalist in London four years ago but ranked No. 18 coming into Rio, started the day with a 6-3, 7-6 (5) win over Great Britain's 11th-ranked Anthony Cotterill.

"It was a tough match. It always is with Anthony," said Taylor. "I felt like I played the big points well."

A much bigger test will come Saturday, when he faces the top-seeded Dylan Alcott of Australia, who defeated Taylor's opponent in the London bronze medal match, Shraga Weinberg (ISR), 6-0, 6-0.

It took a little longer for Jon Rydberg to dispatch Argentina's Ezequiel Casco, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7). Rydberg is currently No. 103 in the ITF world rankings, 80 places lower than Casco, at No. 23 in the world.

"It was an up and down match," noted Rydberg, lamenting his inconsistency in the match. "I don't feel I played my best but I guess I did when I needed to."

His partner in the men's division, Steve Baldwin, kept the ball in court but had to overcome playing Brazil's Rafael Medeiros on Center Court in front of a decidedly home crowd. It took three sets but he prevailed, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

In how he learned to handle the crowd's exuberance for his opponent, Baldwin remarked that it took a mental adjustment on his part.

 "I was trying to keep myself straight, focused and controlling what I can control," he said.

The second seed in the quad division and silver medalist from London, David Wagner had to face the world No. 5, Israel's Itai Erenlib, in the first round, a pairing that Wagner says wasn't good for either of them. It was worse for Erenlib, though, as Wagner won, 6-4, 6-4.

"I'm happy to come through and I just want to keep playing better. I know I can play better than I did today and I just want to do that," said Wagner as fans stepped up to congratulate him on the win.

The only setback for the American team came when the third member of the quad squad, Bryan Barten, started fast but fell, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1, in a match that was closer than the score would imply.

James felt especially good about the women's doubles because those teams featured the team's two Paralympic first-timers in Dana Mathewson, who teamed with now three-Games veteran Kaitlyn Verfuerth, and Shelby Baron, a late addition to the squad who played with London Paralympian Emmy Kaiser.

Mathewson noted that she had yet to play in a Grand Slam and the tournaments she did play attracted few fans so this big stadium and seats filled with people was beyond imagination for her.

"I was speechless the whole time," she said.

Verfuerth and Mathewson (pictured above) and their big-hitting racquets were drawn to Center Court against the host country's Rejane Candida and Natalia Mayara, and like Baldwin earlier, the entire nation of Brazil.

But after the match, which they won handily, 6-2, 6-4, they echoed Baldwin's feelings that the crowd wasn't against them, just for their home athletes and that it was an experience they will never forget.

That experience lasted 1 hour and 19 minutes and was quite the opposite of the slugfest going on outside on Court 9, where Kaiser and Baron engaged in a 3-hour, 18-minute marathon of long rallies that ended the great American day with a 6-7 (2), 7-5, 6-4 win over Charlotte Famin and Emmanuelle Morch.

"The French team targeted her for three hours and at no point did she break down," James said of Baron's play. "Emmy, the veteran and leader of the team was able to push up and finish."

"I was prepared for it," said Baron. "I knew they were going to target me and I was prepared to hit a lot of balls. My goal was to keep calm and keep hitting the ball back."

Kaiser was clearly pleased with and happy for her partner.

"Knowing that it's her first games win in her first Paralympics, it's fantastic," she said.

"It was a really good day here in Rio," concluded James.