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JAUNTS : Wheelchair Tennis Competitors Prove They Know All the Moves : Players--some of them nationally ranked--will show their agility in doubles tourney at Pierpont Racquet Club.

March 03, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tim Ambler probably wouldn't be playing tennis these days if he hadn't broken his back in a climbing accident and landed in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed.

If that makes little sense, come see Ambler in action this weekend in the Hot Wheels Tennis Tournament in Ventura. It's a mind-boggling competition featuring athletes who play tennis from wheelchairs. And Ambler, ranked seventh in the United States, is among the best.

Put on by the city of Ventura and the Rehabilitation Institute in Santa Barbara, the tournament runs Saturday and Sunday at the Pierpont Racquet Club.

Spectators will see a round-robin doubles playoff with teams composed of a wheelchair player randomly paired with an able-bodied player. The rules are nearly the same as regular tennis, except that the wheelchair players get two bounces if needed.

Players can also enter another division of competition designed to show just how tough it is to swing a racket from a wheelchair. In this one, an able player gets in a wheelchair and pairs up with a real wheelchair player to square off against a similarly matched duo. The result is a little like bumper cars.

"It's enlightening how much it takes to do it," said Renee Gomez, the tournament organizer and a therapeutic coordinator for Ventura. She expects the tournament to draw 40 to 50 competitors including wheelchair and non-wheelchair players. Some of them are hotshot players, like Ambler, who play the tennis circuit.

On Sunday, after the tournament, Ambler will play an exhibition doubles match with fellow hotshot wheelchair athlete Tito Bautista of Santa Barbara and two able-bodied players.

To watch the 27-year-old Ventura man play isn't so much an opportunity to see good tennis as it is to see amazing wheelchair moves. After all, he must muscle the chair into place before he even takes a swing at the ball. It's tennis made infinitely harder.

Ambler, who grew up in Louisiana, wasn't a tennis player before his 1990 accident. He had gone to college on a golf scholarship, and later ended up in the Marines.

He was rock climbing for fun on a weekend away from Marine duty when he fell 40 feet, breaking his back and his left arm. But after only a few months in a wheelchair, he took up tennis and quickly honed his skills. Now he wears a leg brace and is able to walk short distances, but he can't run.

Taking up tennis was difficult, he said, because he had to incorporate the wheelchair into an already challenging sport. Position and timing were crucial. He uses a 25-pound ultra-light chair, made by Camarillo-based Kuschall of America.

Although he played 12 tournaments all over the country last year, his key interest right now is graduating from UC Santa Barbara this spring with a biology degree. Then he wants to go for a graduate degree and eventually teach science and coach sports.

Details

* WHAT: Hot Wheels Tennis Tournament, a competition featuring wheelchair tennis players.

* WHEN: Saturday and Sunday; play begins at noon both days. On Sunday, able-bodied players take to wheelchairs in play beginning at 2 p.m. Exhibition match at 5 p.m. Sunday, with a reception to follow.

* WHERE: Pierpont Racquet Club, 500 Sanjon Road, Ventura. (Take Sanjon exit off Ventura Freeway.)

* FYI: The deadline for registering to play in the tournament has passed. For information, call 658-4739.

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