A young couple, somewhere in their mid-20s, stop at the entrance of the mobile sports stadium of the European Para Championships on the Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam. They read the announcement on the canvases, find their way. Sure, they had seen those logos and banners here and there in the city, but that they are passing by the center court this Saturday is more or less by chance. Their plan to shop and have lunch is spontaneously revised. Wheelchair tennis, they’ve always wanted to see that.
And so just after noon they sit and watch the first changes of strokes in Maikel Scheffers’ match against Spaniard Martin de la Puente. The jackets can be taken off immediately, the sunglasses that were in the hair go on the nose. For it is suddenly summer again in Rotterdam.
How different it was a few hours earlier. In the early morning it poured, the court was soaked. No way to play tennis on that, of course. The move of the tennis tournament from TV Victoria to the Schouwburgplein suddenly doesn;t seem to have been such a good idea. The European Para Championships had made just that choice to bring the sport to the people, to lower the threshold for watching parasports. That is also why admission at the Schouwburgplein is free.
Saturday and Sunday will feature the boccia tournament finals, plus the wheelchair tennis semifinals and finals. That should appeal to a wider audience. Where you would otherwise buy a ticket for a day of sports in Ahoy (for 7.50 euro, obviously not an extreme amount of money either), now you can just walk in and out. “But, of course, we especially hope that people will stay a little longer”, said Maikel Scheffers.
Scheffers was scheduled to be first on the outdoor court, but saw his match postponed. “That requires some adjustment, in your schedule, you eat a little later, warm up later. But mostly I watched with admiration how the organization here managed to save things. Because a lot of water had really fallen.” With pullers, towels and leaf blowers, the field was ‘blow-dried’ between 9 and 11, the sun coming out afterwards helping quite a bit. After noon, no one talks about the delay anymore. Not even the British boccia team, who went into the players’ home to play a game of cards.
Once Scheffers is allowed on the court, it will have been worth the wait, he tells himself. “This is what we as Dutch wheelchair tennis players have been looking forward to for a long time. Playing in the middle of the city center, that’s unique. For us this is the ideal situation to promote disabled sports in general and wheelchair tennis in particular. This is wonderful example of how you can bring sport to the people”, said the Dutchman, ranked 14th in the world in singles. Martin de la Puente is ranked fourth, but faces a lot of opposition. The Spaniard after all reaches the final: 6-3, 6-4.
Ruben Spaargaren, who wins the other semifinal against Ben Bartram (7-5, 6-3), had already drawn his conclusion in the morning when he pulled open the curtains. “I knew immediately that I didn’t have to rush, that I had to adjust my schedule a little bit and could have breakfast later”, he said.
For days now, he had, in his own words, “been really looking forward to playing on the Schouwburgplein. It seems wonderful when a lot of people come by, when you also manage to captivate people who otherwise would never have come to see us. Sure, at the Grandslams we play under the same roof as the big names, and we certainly have an audience coming to watch us, but just as often we have tournaments in a hallway out back. However, I think this is a wonderful venue, the format of the European Para Championships is beautiful. Others could follow that up as far as I’m concerned.”
Meanwhile, the Dutch boccia team has also arrived at Schouwburgplein. The five Dutch players and their coaches had already seen from videos and posts on social media in the morning that their intended boccia court was under water. “But we didn’t panic. We didn’t have to play until 2 a.m., so I think it must have been a lot more hectic for the organization. They also had to start up the tennis and make a decision about our program.”
In the end, it was decided to move all the boccia matches for bronze – scheduled for the morning hours – to Ahoy and have the finals ‘just’ played at the scheduled times. “We have been looking forward to this for a long time”, says the Dutch delegation. “Especially because, don’t forget, this is of course a world first after all. There has, to our knowledge, never been a boccia tournament played outdoors before, at least not such an important event.”
After the preliminary rounds in Ahoy, what has been trained in recent months can finally be brought to fruition. “We regularly visited a Johan Cruijff Court and played there. You have to get used to the circumstances. The light can change regularly, sometimes there is a bright sun and then there are clouds again. And of course the wind is also an influence, although that seems almost negligible at the moment. But nothing more changeable than the weather of course, we’ve seen that.”
The boccia players, by the way, are in high spirits. Because what they experienced Friday in Ahoy was incredible, they say. The stands were full, there was enormous sympathy. The British posted a nice video about ‘the most incredible atmosphere’, that gave us a proud feeling.”
Daniel Perez and Chantal van Engelen, later that afternoon in the final of their class, judge the track from a distance. “It looks very good. Nice and smooth too. I think we can perform on this track.” That they are now suddenly playing outside and there will be a lot of pressure because they are playing in front of their own crowd does not matter much, is the conclusion. “In the end, it’s all about getting that ball as close to white as possible. If you approach it that way, it’s not all that difficult.”