Esrey wins Wheelchair Tennis U.S. Open

Local attorney serves it up to opponents
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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When Denise Esrey serves, she turns tennis balls into speeding bullets. That fiery determination is a close parallel to the way the 52 year-old Grass Valley resident has handled challenges that have cropped up in her life — and there have been many. Esrey’s tennis prowess recently earned her the U.S. Tennis Association Wheel Chair Championship in both Singles and Doubles at the U.S. Open. The road there for Esrey, an attorney, has been paved with unrelenting resolve. At 25, she was paralyzed in a car accident. Esrey’s mother encouraged her to use the accident as motivation to pursue her law degree. “I always wanted to go to law school and I was kind of floundering,” Esrey said. “She is a rock. She said, ‘You know, you can still be a lawyer.’” After attending McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Esrey passed the BAR exam and became a criminal prosecutor for the Nevada County District Attorney’s Office. It was there that a friend introduced her to wheelchair tennis. At first, she just went for the social experience. “I never really liked tennis in high school. I played once and thought, ‘This is kind of dumb,’ because I had to keep going to get the ball from over the fence,’” Esrey said. “I was practically raised on a horse in the country. I did barrel racing.” When she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease a few years later, Esrey had to leave her job as a prosecutor. She said it was then that the tennis courts became her escape. “In 1996 I got Crohn’s Disease and I had to leave the D.A.’s office,” Esrey said. “After I left the D.A.’s office, I felt lost. It gave me a goal, just to shoot for something.” Tennis coach Tom Isaac spotted Esrey sharpening her skills on a neighboring court one day and became interested in coaching her. “I saw her hitting balls on the court next to me and I wondered what it’d be like if I coached her,” Isaac said. “I feel like it’s a team thing. I have the idea about how to change something and she takes it and thinks about it.” Together, Isaac and Esrey have worked tirelessly to perfect each aspect of her game, even trying more unconventional methods. Rather than hit the ball with a heavy top spin, to make it easier for competitor’s to lob back, Isaac said he had Esrey try a more competitive style of play. Her serves are flat and sharp now, and she uses a hitting style that sends her opponents chasing the ball. Isaac has even had other clients of his in wheelchairs ask him to play in a wheelchair. The experience gave him a better perspective of what it truly takes to play tennis without the use of legs. “It was so hard,” Isaac said. “I had to learn how to move around the court. I learned why they have a roll-bar and wear a seatbelt.” Isaac said he fell backward and forward onto the ground leaning to get shots. He said it’s not only Esrey’s sharp dexterity and fast-wheeling, but her mind that makes her among the best in the United States. The Challenged Athletes Foundation even sponsored Esrey, purchasing her a sport wheelchair and paying for her lessons. “She is a very strong person mentally,” Isaac said. “She is a highly competitive person. There is a million things that happen in tennis. It’s high, it’s low, it’s fast, it’s slow. We are talking about constant stimulus. You think ‘aww’ when you look at this 52-year old woman and then she gets it and passes you.” Isaac thinks so highly of her skill, that he suggested Esrey compete against able-bodied players with a doubles partner. “Tennis is one of those sports where you reach your playing peak and then it all goes downhill from there,” Isaac said. “Denise hasn’t reached her peak yet. She still has her best tennis ahead of her. She may not be faster than she was 20 years ago, but her mind is sharper. She’s picked up things.” Esrey said aside from defending her U.S. Open championship and playing able-bodied tennis, she would like to compete in the senior paralympic games. “I’d like to compete in them,” Esrey said. “And I’d like to win the gold obviously.” Reach Sara Seyydin at