Wheelchair tennis ace used Paralympics as chance to improve

Joel Dembe in training

It might come as a surprise to some, but Canadian wheelchair men’s singles tennis champ Joel Dembe said he went to the Paralympic Games in England to get better, but he wasn’t expecting to win a medal.

That despite the fact the 28-year old – believed to be the only Jewish athlete on the Canadian contingent of 145 athletes – says he’s playing the best tennis of his career.

Facing athletes from Great Britain in the opening rounds of the men’s singles and men’s doubles competitions didn’t help either, with the crowds cheering on the local favourites.

Dembe was no match for 23-year old Dave Phillopson of Great Britain, losing 6-2, 6-2 at Eton Manor in London, eliminating the Canadian from the men’s singles medal competition.

Things didn’t get any better in men’s doubles, as Marc McCarroll and Gordon Reid beat Dembe and partner Philippe Bedard 6-3, 6-1

Born in Hamilton, Dembe has lived in Toronto for the past four years.

His passion for tennis was so great that he quit his job as a marketing analyst with TD Bank a year and a half ago to focus on the sport.

“To be the best, I had to commit to tennis full time,” said Dembe. “It was my choice, and that meant I had to leave a good job and spend a minimum of 15 hours a week on the tennis court.”

Yet despite being the Canadian champ, he said he wasn’t expected to win any medals. But the No. 32-ranked player in the world said that just getting to his first “major international event,” one that draws the top physically disabled athletes in the world, was a huge reward in itself.

“I have to be realistic,” Dembe, a graduate of the sports management program at Brock University in St. Catharines, said in an interview before heading to the Games. “These are the best [players] in the world, and strange things happen in sport, but let’s just say that I’m still improving. The plan is to use this as an opportunity to reach my personal best.”

As for reaching the biggest event for physically disabled athletes, he was quick to say that his success didn’t happen overnight.

 “Hard work, dedication and a commitment to keep working on getting my performance better than the previous day – that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

“When I feel I am not improving, I will put the racquet away, but I’ve got a way to go.”

Dembe was born with two benign tumours near his spine that needed to be removed surgically or his life would have been in jeopardy. His parents decided to go through with the operation, but he was eventually left partially paralyzed.

At age 14, he took up wheelchair tennis.

Although Dembe had been quite active in a variety of sports as a youngster, tennis really took over his life when he met Frank Peter, one of Canada’s top wheelchair tennis players, about 10 years ago. After lots of instruction, combined with work on his power, speed and eye-hand co-ordination, Dembe was on his way.

His specialties are his strong serve and forehand.

Dembe won the singles title at the Guadalajara Wheelchair Open earlier this year, took part in the BNP Paribas World Team Cup Americas tourney in Mexico and represented Canada at the World Team Cup this past May in Seoul. He was in South Korea when he learned he was being chosen for Canada’s Paralympic Team.

Named Canada’s male wheelchair athlete of the year in 2011, Dembe doesn’t want sympathy because of his disability.

“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, because I don’t want to be treated any differently than others,” he said. “I don’t want a tennis title handed to me on a silver platter. I want to earn it.”

Dembe’s trip to England was preceded by a May stopover in Tel Aviv for the Israeli Open. Again, he came up short on the court, losing in the quarterfinals.

“It may not have been my best tennis, but it was a good experience,” said Dembe, who hopes to compete in Toronto at the 2015 Pan Am Games. “What drives me a great deal is that I am very fortunate to be surrounded by some great people – coaches, family and friends.”