Been There, Done That In Tennis, Nick Taylor Has Reinvented Himself As A Boccia Player
by Bob Reinert
When Nick Taylor hung up his tennis racket for good in November 2021, he departed with four Paralympic medals — three of them gold — and 11 Grand Slam titles.
Taylor had nothing left to prove in wheelchair tennis, but he was far from done athletically. Now the 44-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, is looking to add a fifth Paralympic Games appearance next year in Paris as a boccia player. The next step on that unique journey is the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023, which run Nov. 17-26 in Santiago, Chile.
Despite all that he has accomplished, Taylor, who previously had been ranked No. 1 in the world in quad singles and doubles, has never attended the Parapan Ams.
“Out of everything I did do in tennis, I never played the Parapans,” Taylor said. “So, this is a really cool moment for me that I found my way there through another sport.”
Taylor, born with arthrogryposis, which severely limits his range of motion, is currently ranked 29th in the world in the BC4 class, which includes players with non-cerebral impairments that also affect their coordination. The two-time defending U.S. BC4 champion hopes to move up in the rankings to earn a trip to Paris.
As Taylor’s tennis career was winding down, he began to make time for boccia — a Paralympic ball sport that was introduced in 1984 and is similar to bocce — while still on the professional tour. Canadian Paralympic boccia player Marco Dispaltro had been urging Taylor for years to take up the game.
“Every Paralympics, I would see him, and he would always talk to me about boccia and how I should play,” said Taylor, who ran into Dispaltro again at Rio in 2016. “I was actually really listening at that point.”
Soon, Taylor was playing both sports and taking a creative approach in pursuing them.
“So, I was practicing boccia at tennis tournaments,” said Taylor, who would play in empty hotel ballrooms or meeting rooms. “What ultimately happened is I introduced boccia to the tennis tour.”
Others might have trouble seeing it, but Taylor appreciates the similarities between tennis and boccia.
“There’s just the competitor part, knowing how to compete, knowing how to prepare,” Taylor said. “It’s the same core principles that you’ve got to have. You’ve got to have an insane work ethic.”
As Taylor pointed out boccia, like tennis, is skill-specific and technical. Strategy plays an important role in both sports, he said.
“When to defend, when to see a weakness in the opponent and strike,” he said. “How to find opponents’ weaknesses is probably the biggest. That was the biggest strength I had in my tennis game was I was going to find what the opponent hated. Then I was going to do it over and over and over.
“That was how I was able to win with the disability that I had. Boccia’s the same way. I’d say the difference in boccia is, there’s more people that (think) along those lines that I do … probably more than in tennis.”
Taylor, the director of operations for the Wichita State University men’s tennis team who also teaches sport management there, has found that the topspin lobs he once lofted on the tennis courts have had application in boccia.
“In my class, BC4, there’s a lot of playing in the air,” he said. “I need to lob up and over but still make it stop where I want it to. Lobs are something that, from the very beginning, just were natural to me.”
At the Parapan Ams, Taylor expects tough competition from certain countries.
“Brazil’s unreal, Colombia’s unreal,” he said. “Brazil, Colombia and Canada are the three that are really, really good. It’s going to be a small but extremely strong field.”
Could he find himself on the podium there?
“Potential? Sure,” Taylor said. “Likelihood? I don’t know.”
Unlike in tennis, where form usually prevails, upsets are not uncommon in high-level boccia. According to Taylor, the small number of international tournaments each year make it difficult to move up in the individual world rankings.
“There just aren’t that many tournaments,” Taylor said. “The parity in this sport, and the ability for crazy things to happen, is way high. In boccia, it happens all the time. Some lower-ranked guys may squeak into the knockout bracket.
“As a lower-ranked player, I like it. If I get good enough, it’s probably going to drive me nuts.”