Nathan Melnyk, a 16-year-old junior at Harborfields High School, became what is believed to be New York’s first wheelchair athlete to compete against able-bodied students in a varsity high school tennis match Tuesday when he took to the court in a doubles match at Smithtown East.
Melnyk, who was injured in a March 2009 auto accident, and his partner, freshman Bobby Bellino, won the first four games in the opening set of their match, which was suspended by rain. It will resume at Smithtown East on Monday.
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“I was looking forward to this since I was able to play on the team for the first time,” said Melnyk, who previously competed on Harborfields’ junior varsity team.
Melnyk moved smoothly on the slick court, returning shots on his forehand and showing a tricky, slicing second serve.
“I think [the serve is] one of the most important parts of the game,” he said. “I still have things I can work on, but it’s going relatively well.”
Wheelchair players, according to United States Tennis Association rules, are allowed two bounces to return a shot compared to one bounce for able-bodied players. Otherwise, the game remains the same.
Nathan’s father, Mike Melnyk, pointed out that his son, like all wheelchair players, is constantly moving, even while the other players are standing still.
“The biggest challenge for a wheelchair player is mobility,” he said, “They are nowhere near as fast. The other problem is that he’s low and it’s easier to hit the ball over him. It’s a challenge, but he’s a decent player.”
Harborfields tennis coach Bob Davis said Melnyk’s feat was the first of its kind in Suffolk, adding, “we believe it is the first time it’s happened in New York State.”
Nathan’s father took the event in stride.
“He’s a teenage high school boy who enjoys tennis,” Mike Melnyk said. “ This was a really good opportunity for him.”
Nate, as he is most often called, used an adjustable tennis wheelchair that allows him to maneuver well enough to have been ranked as high as 10th nationally on the USTA’s wheelchair circuit, his father said.
Tennis has helped Nathan Melnyk mentally and physically since the accident, which occurred one day after he received his first tennis lesson, according to his father.
“It’s been a really good thing for him,” Mike Melnyk said. “There are a lot of really active people out in chairs who are playing tennis all over the country, all over the world. He’s met them and gotten lessons from them.”
Nate acknowledged that playing wheelchair tennis, “Definitely helped me recover.”
His path to the Harborfields varsity started in the spring of 2013, when he was discovered by his current coach.
“I first saw Nate play when he was an eighth-grader. I went down to check on the middle school team, my farm system,” Davis said. “All of a sudden, playing third doubles, this young man comes out in a wheelchair and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I just couldn’t believe it. He was pretty good. I was shocked. I went home and told my wife, ‘I can’t believe what I just saw.’ It was fantastic.”
As a freshman and sophomore, Melnyk played exhibition matches for the Harborfields junior varsity team and kept busy on the USTA’s wheelchair circuit, winning several championships, according to his father.
“He played singles and doubles wheelchair tournaments all around the county,” Mike Melynk said. “We cut back on his tournaments this year because of school. It’s his junior year and it’s really intense.”
Nate Melynk is taking five Advanced Placement courses and also plays the violin in the school orchestra. “He’s a great kid with a great attitude,” Davis said.
The Harborfields team is 4-8 this season, and Davis felt it was time to give Melnyk a chance to play a varsity match after two years of exhibitions “because he put in his time. He’s gotten a lot better. He hits ground strokes well. He has two different serves. He doesn’t miss a day of practice.”
Nate Melynk is much more than that.
“He’s an inspiration,” said Smithtown East coach Steve Ginsberg, who is a social worker at Smithtown West High School. “To be able to present him to my players and have them be a part of something bigger than themselves is very important for a teenager. We’re all very excited to have this opportunity.”
As Davis said, “It’s his time.”