Although he’s encountered rampant success in his short career, Thomas is looking for more, with his sights set as high as the Paralympic Games in Paris. We sat down with the New Westminster-born 23-year-old to talk about his development, his struggles and whatever else he had to say about this sport that transcends physical barriers.
Obviously, you are very good at tennis and an avid competitor: do you play because you love to win, or is there another motivation for playing the sport?
THOMAS: I’ve been playing sports my whole life. I love competition and it’s always been where I get the most fun.
At what age did you start playing wheelchair tennis?
THOMAS: I started when I was 16.
I've read that you never played tennis before being in a wheelchair. Did it just come naturally to you, or was it frustrating like for most of us?
THOMAS: It wasn’t pretty at the beginning but I think it was probably better than for most people, especially because I played baseball before. I batted lefty so it was pretty much the same stroke as a backhand. Of course the hand eye coordination passed over as well.
It’s not easy for most of us to compete in tennis, even after having played it for decades, much less after seven years. It was pretty clear to me that I was talking to a very talented athlete. Having competed at a high level in several sports before his injury at age 16, Thomas had transitioned seamlessly to a sport notorious for requiring years and years of training to achieve perfection and consistency.
Before your injury, you played soccer and baseball. What has your experience with other sports taught you in your tennis career?
THOMAS: Just keeping at it. Soccer is very physically demanding, baseball is a lot of mental. Tennis is basically a combination of both; probably more mental. So just being mentally strong and then just keeping active and competitive.
His prior experience certainly helped, but the team sports he had played are very different from the individuality of tennis.
Recently, we've heard Nick Kyrgios bring up a struggle most tennis players don’t address: the solo aspect of the sport. How have you learned to deal with the mental struggles of being alone on the court, at least in singles?
THOMAS: So at the very beginning of my career I had a terrible mental game. I was getting mad and would sometimes throw my rackets in anger. I never smashed them but I would get angry with myself a lot. Then I went to a sports psychologist and they gave really good tips and helped me see the game better, and not just focus on the negatives. Now, at least on my team at Alabama, I know I’m the most mentally strong and, honestly, that mental toughness is now one of my biggest strengths.
Of course, a lot of that comes from you and your development but would you say the sports psychologist helped quite a bit?
THOMAS: Yes. At one match during nationals maybe three or four years ago I lost the first set but then won the second 6-0 and was up 5-0 in the third, and then I lost. That was the worst, I was so mad. I talked about that a lot with the sports psychologist but one thing she brought up was that you can never think about the future (points or result), you always have to focus on every point, in the present. With those bad experiences, I’ve learned how to never let them become the same bad experiences again.
At the highest level in any sport, every player can play well. Skill isn’t what separates the best from the rest. Thomas’ experience with mental struggles are commonplace in the sport of tennis. Greats like Federer and Djokovic have well documented mental crises, and journeys back to the top through years of emotional training. Thomas’ struggles and subsequent development are testimony to the level at which his brain operates like all of the best in their sport. Transitioning from team to individual sports further accentuates that mental aspect; there’s nowhere to hide.
Playing team sports your whole life then moving to tennis, do you enjoy the self-accountability (at least in singles) or are there times you wish you had teammates on the court with you?
THOMAS: At Alabama we kind of have a team and they’ll always be on the sideline so that helps. But during the summer when I’m not at school it’s definitely a bit tougher. It takes time but eventually it gets easier. Then once you get better there are crowds and you can use that to your advantage.
So playing in a team setting in university helps in giving you that community sense, at least off the court?
THOMAS: Definitely, because you have your teammates and you can go hit with them whenever. You don’t have to go hit against a wall or with a coach so you can practice whenever. Then during your matches they’ll bring you up as well, they’ll cheer for you and you cheer for them so it’s almost like a team sport at that point.
Thomas has been one of the key players for his university, winning the last two singles national championships and helping them win the team championship during his first three years competing.
Would you say your school results are the culmination of your tennis career so far?
THOMAS: No, not really, I would say the Canadian nationals are higher up because you get paid pretty well for winning and the level is higher. In university I would say two years ago, when I won my first singles championship, it was one of the hardest ones to win. This past year, the level was not quite as high.
That’s obviously quite a lot of success. What are your next goals from here?
THOMAS: Definitely trying to go to the Paris 2024 Paralympics. My ranking went up a lot this summer so that is going to help. And then win the next college championship and Canadian championship. I’ll also be going to the Parapan American games again, in Santiago, in 2023, so I’ll try to do decently well there. That’s basically at Paralympic level.
Professional athletes are in a unique position of being able to visit many different places throughout the world. They don’t always get to fully appreciate those places for what they have to offer because of the level of focus required to compete, but Thomas has managed to enjoy his out of country experiences having played in Peru, Italy, and of course, the United States.
You have said that part of the reason you love this sport so much is because you get to visit cool places around the world: what has been your favourite experience so far?
THOMAS: My favourite experience was in Sardinia, in Italy for the World Team Cup, which is like the Davis Cup for wheelchair tennis. The facility was great and, I mean, it’s Italy, and one of the biggest competitions in the world so you can imagine how that feels.
I came from the US, to Canada for university, the opposite of your path. How are you enjoying your experience in Alabama?
THOMAS: It’s been great, there’s basically nothing in Canada that’s like the University of Alabama. They have pretty much one of the best football teams, and are good in almost every other sport. Since I’m a pretty big sports person, I’ve seen almost all the university sports, that’s been insane. And especially for wheelchair tennis, we’ve recently built a huge facility just for wheelchair tennis, the only one in the world. It’s in Alabama of all places but they put a lot of effort into our team which helps us grow as a sport and as individuals.
Wheelchair tennis may not have the popularity of tennis, but it is a sport that keeps on growing, and, more importantly, allows avid competitors a chance to play at the highest level. It also provides a platform for exercise and athleticism, something that each one of us needs.
You encountered quite a bit of adversity at an important time in your life; 16 years old. Is there any advice you would like to give to someone in a similar situation?
THOMAS: Personally because of my love for sports, I knew that playing a sport would help me through the adversity. My family too, of course, but it was really finding something that I enjoyed doing. I would say that’s the most important, finding something that you love to do that will eventually grow into a passion. Once you find that thing, stick to it; you’ll meet cool people and learn things you wouldn't have before.
Interviewing Thomas was a very eye opening experience. Knowing that I was speaking to one of the 100 best players in his sport was intimidating at first, but Thomas was easy-going, thoughtful and we ended up having a good laugh. He’s someone that everyone can learn something from.
Of course, he is an extremely talented athlete; that was the case before his injury and remains true ever since, but his journey has been anything but easy. Still at a young age in his career, he continues to grow and aspire for more. Onwards and upwards.
But Thomas wasn’t getting away without at least one nerdy tennis question. I am, after all, the “huge specs guy” at Rackets & Runners.
Obviously you’re being interviewed by a huge gear nerd. I don’t know if you are, but I’ll ask you anyway: what’s your current racket setup and why did you decide to go with it?
THOMAS: I’m not the biggest gear person, but it’s the Pure Strike with RPM Power. I chose the Pure Strike after demoing all the Babolat rackets because I’m sponsored by Babolat. It was between the Strike and the Aero but the Pure Strike just edged it because it feels a bit better. RPM Power I switched to when it came out because it felt really good. It’s all about feel with me.
I am particularly obsessed with the ever elusive “feel”, good to know that the best players are too…
And how about your tension?
THOMAS: To be honest, I don’t even know.
There you have it, the good players don't worry too much about their gear. I need to take some notes.