NEW YORK (AP) — Tennis players around the world have learned plenty from Rafael Nadal.
On Tuesday, Nadal learned something from Conner Stroud.
Stroud, a 12-year-old from Spindale, N.C., was born without hips, ankles, femurs or knees. Encouraged by parents who wouldn’t allow their son’s disability to hold him back, Stroud has been playing against able-bodied kids in local tennis tournaments, winning a couple and inspiring people young and old.
Stroud visited the U.S. Open and spent some time with Nadal, who signed autographs and chatted with the youngster outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“The most important thing is that he’s happy,” Nadal said. “He’s able to keep practicing the sport. He’s playing tennis. That’s great for him, for the family. That’s a great example that you can be happy even if life doesn’t give you everything. It’s a big example for me and should be a big example for a lot of people.”
Stroud runs on his stubs — what’s left of his legs due to a birth defect called Bilateral Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (PFFD). He was born with feet, but his parents consulted with doctors, who told them Conner would be able to move around more easily if he had all but the heels amputated.
“The key is just to have a positive attitude, try to have fun and not worry about getting it in every time or missing a shot,” Stroud said. “I love the game because you’re on your own. You get to hit and play matches and be competitive against people and just have fun.”
The bottoms of Stroud’s legs are fitted with boots or “stubbies,” and Stroud moves around on them quite well, as a few YouTube videos have illustrated, including one of him hitting with Andy Roddick.
The youngster met with Nadal in a shady spot in the players’ garden outside the locker room at the main stadium. He said he was drawn to the Spanish star for a number of reasons.
“He’s got a great attitude on the court,” Stroud said. “I like his Western grip, too. I use the Western grip. Plus, he looks like a very nice person.”
Growing up, Stroud hung around the courts where his dad teaches. His mom, Rita, said, “It was either just sit there or start playing.”
“We have two older children,” she said. “You don’t want to treat any of your children differently. Sometimes, it’s hard, but you expect the same out of them. You do what you can do. You focus on the positive. You make the most of it. We all have issues. Some are bigger than others. Most of them you can’t see. So you just do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
After taking time to work out his swing and figure out the angles he had to hit the ball to clear the net from his low vantage point, Stroud started enjoying some success.
He won his first tournament, in the 8-and-under category, playing doubles. Later, he addded a singles title. The trophies?
“In my room,” he said. “And I think we have one in the living room.”
Stroud can still win a match or two, but it has become easier for opponents to hit away from him. This summer, he is taking lessons playing in a wheelchair and he has signed up for his first wheelchair tournament later this year.
Perhaps there’s a spot for him someday in the U.S. Open wheelchair division.
“As much determination as he has, it wouldn’t surprise me,” his mother said. “Nothing would.”