By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE - David Wagner and Peter Norfolk have a rivalry worthy of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The two quad singles champions have faced each other time and again on the world's biggest stages, and due to the fact that wheelchair draws are much smaller than the touring pros, they go up against each other time and time again.
"Able body guys could go a few years and not play each other twice because they can have 128-draws where as we rarely go a week and not play the same person in a tournament," said Wagner, who has reached the final of the Australian Open quad division. "My coach recently said that in reality, there is only one real rivalry in wheelchair tennis, because Esther Vergeer doesn't lose (she had won 401 consecutive matches coming into Melbourne) so no one is her rival and Shingo Kunieda of Japan won 106 matches in a row, so he doesn't lose. The only real rivalry between the top-level players is the one between Peter and I. We are going back and forth and I think its good for wheelchair tennis. That's what sports is about."
Wagner and Norfolk will butt heads again in the final on Saturday. The American Wagner has won just about every major title, but has never come through in Melbourne
"If I had to guess, we've played each other in maybe 40 finals," Wagner said. "Were pretty close. I got him early, he got me in the middle and now we seem to be splitting every other time. I beat him at the US Open and he beat me at the end of year Masters. Then here, I beat him in the round robin stage, but we both reached the final. We are not enemies, but we're not going out and having dinner together."
Wagner grew up in Fullerton, Calif. and began playing at the age of 25 after breaking his neck in the ocean off Redondo Beach. Now 37, he recently moved from Oregon into the housing at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista (San Diego County), Calif. as a resident athlete, where he is training for the 2012 Olympics in London.
"The coolest part for me is I'm training there hard alongside with other medalists. I'm in the bench press and a 400 meter hurdleler is next to me on the military press," said Wagner, who competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. "They might not feed after me but I feed off of them. The great thing is that they are there to do what you are there to do. Its not like going to a regular gym and there's a Joe Blow there just lifting weights - and don't get me wrong it's a great thing for health purposes - but now I'm in a dedicated area where I can share stories and you feel that it's important."
Wagner is the only tennis player living at the facility. When it was built in the 1990s, there were four tennis courts, but now there is just one lit court, as the three others now serve as a strength and conditioning area, an athlete's lounge and a basketball court.
When Wagner arrived, the court he was to play on wasn't in tiptop shape, so the USTA donated a new net and power washed the court.
"That was sweet," he said. "The court is fast and has nice lights, but I also train at the Barnes Center in Ocean Beach, which is a great facility [the Barnes Center hosted the USTA Girls 16s and 18s Nationals]."
Wagner is a full time athlete who thanks to his sponsors like the USOC and the USTA (as well as a handful of others) doesn't have to take on other work. He isn't getting rich and just hopes to break even every year.
"I'm OK with just breaking even, because I love playing tennis, training and competing," he said. "I love the training the most, just getting in there and grinding."
Wagner owns 88 singles titles and 92 doubles crowns, many of them with fellow American Nick Taylor. He's been the quad year-end No. 1 for the past three years, and last fall won his first US Open crown.
He has never suffered a serious arm injury and he's been playing the circuit for 10 years. The only minor mishap he had was when he dropped a tailgate of a truck on his left wrist, but he was only out for 10 days. Wagner says that wheelchair tennis doesn't tax the arm as much as it might appear to.
"You could be 44 and start playing wheelchair tennis, " he said. "Unlike the able bodied pros, we aren't taking that serious pounding on our legs. It's a pretty fluid, constant motion."
While competing at the Grand Slams, the wheelchair players get to see how the top touring pros live and it's an entirely dissimilar existence. Wagner enjoys his life and career, but few wheelchair players have as many benefits as the pros do.
"It's different environment for us," he said. "It's starting to get a little professional, because lot of guys are traveling with a coach now. Some guys are pooling with their money and bringing a physical trainer. But it's expensive. Taylor and I don't bring anybody with us. You watch the pros and they are bringing their entourages along with them and I can see why the level of their tennis is good because all they have to do is worry about is hitting the ball. I can't even imagine the level that wheelchair tennis could get to if all we ever had to do is to train full time. Bills aren't an issue, there's someone to take care off all your arrangements. I think, 'Oh man, if we had that , it would be really good stuff."