When he was nine years old, no one would have predicted that Tomas Bourassa would one day be chosen as part of a Canadian world cup team.
“He wasn’t a sports kid, even before the accident,” his mom, Paula Bourassa, said.
“He played soccer and stuff,” his dad, Chris Bourassa, said. “But not a whole lot.”
That changed in 2009, when Tomas suffered a spinal cord injury while biking with his dad. He lost mobility in his legs, and had to adjust to life in a wheelchair.
That accident, though, was also what got Bourassa into tennis.
In the eight years since, he’s become the first wheelchair tennis player on Seaquam Secondary’s team, the first wheelchair tennis player at the B.C. School Tennis Provincial Tournament (where he competed against the able-bodied players) and one of the first juniors to play at the Birmingham National Wheelchair Tennis Championships.
The year after his Birmingham debut, Bourassa played in the championships again, rising through the ranks to take on Canada’s top-ranked men’s player and two-time Paralympian Philippe Bedard in the finals.
Now, 17-year-old Bourassa is heading to Italy to take on the world’s best wheelchair tennis players at the 2017 BNP Paribas World Team Cup from May 1 to 7.
The family found out on March 1, two months before the tournament.
“It’s been a bit of whirlwind as we’ve tried to plan it all out,” his father said.
Chris Bourassa saw the email from Tennis Canada when he was standing at his desk at work and immediately texted the rest of the family.
“‘Check your email’,” Paula Bourassa said, mimicking the tone she read the text in. “Then my daughter: ‘We’re going to Italy!’”
Becoming one of the best junior players in the world hasn’t been the work of a day.
“He’s kind of grown up into this,” his mom said.
When Bourassa started playing wheelchair tennis, it was a recreational activity that helped him get out of the house. Soon, it became a weekly event.
Steve Manley, a long-time tennis coach, has mentored Bourassa through all of it.
“The development over the nine years has been incredible to watch,” Manley said.
Technically, Bourassa is an equal match for an able-bodied tennis player. The only rule difference between wheelchair tennis and able-bodied tennis is that wheelchair tennis players can let the ball bounce twice instead of once.
But, “as you can see,” Manley said at Bourassa’s practice on March 7, “he very rarely takes two bounces.”
When Bourassa first started playing he had trouble perfecting his serve because of his injury.
The injury levels in wheelchair tennis vary. Some players can walk around fine, but have reduced mobility which forces them to use a wheelchair for sports. Others are amputees, so their core strength is intact, allowing them to reach higher and lean out to the side more easily.
Bourassa is a third type of wheelchair tennis player: a paraplegic. His injury is higher up his spine, which gives him less core strength than other players.
“You notice Tomas has straps on there,” Manley said, indicating to the bands connecting Bourassa to his chair, “and when he serves, he’ll grab the wheel with his hand because he hasn’t got the core balance.”
“That used to be a real struggle for him, just to find the right position.”
But the biggest struggle Bourassa has faced in his game, Manley said, is the mental one.
“[In tennis], you’re trying to play a game perfectly when you can’t play a game perfectly,” Manley said. “Basically you win a match by making the least unforced errors.”
“That used to be his Achilles’ heel. He would make an error and he wouldn’t forgive himself.”
Now, with a second-place spot at the Birmingham Nationals under his belt, Manley said Bourassa has come into his own as a mature player. In Manley’s eyes, Bourassa is ready to take on the players at the World Team Cup.
Bourassa will be playing doubles with another B.C. wheelchair tennis player: Thomas Venos. Bourassa practices with Venos a couple times a week, and the pair have been a formidable team at tournaments throughout the country.
When Bourassa talked about the World Team Cup, he maintained the same calm comportment that he had when speaking about the other parts of his tennis career.
“It’s not every day that you get the majority of the best wheelchair tennis players in the world together in one place,” he said. “It’s definitely a good opportunity for me to learn some stuff.”