Sunshine State 'Athletes Without Limits' Shine at US Open
Nov 20, 2023
It was day 11, one of the premiere days of the world’s biggest sports event with over 700,000 fans attending the fortnight’s sporting extravaganza. It was the day that the US Open traditionally welcomes the public free admission during this special day session. The US Open also welcomed an opportunity to observe some of the strongest competitive spirits and grit in the sporting sphere. Deployed between the two men’s doubles semifinals and the two men’s wheelchair matches, 14,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium was featuring an Intellectual Impairments mixed doubles exhibition in partnership with Athletes Without Limits. Four world-class impaired tennis players - Kevin Meade of Milton, Mass., Rachel Sweatt of Hot Springs, Ark., and Floridians: Brittany Tagliareni of Sanford and Ryan Smith of Bradenton - all with intellectual disabilities took the Mixed Doubles spotlight stage. The Sunshine State team claimed the bragging rights 9-7 in an abbreviated match on one of the biggest arenas in tennis.
These players had global level competitive experience. Sweatt, the current No. 4 woman in Special Olympics tennis and former No. 1, has qualified for many USTA NTRP ( National Tennis Rating Program) abled-bodied tournaments. Meade competed intercollegiately at the Division III level at Curry College. He also received the first USTA Player Development Player Grant for the 2023 Virtus Global Games. Tagliareni won gold and silver in women’s singles and doubles at the INAS Tennis World Championships and INAS Global Games. She has also held the No. 1 ranking in the country and 3 in the world singles ranking. She has been recognized with the ESPY Honorary Award and has been featured on Tennis Channel, ESPN, CNN, and ABC for her achievements.
Brittany had gotten a taste of the US Open excitement when she was invited by the USTA/US Open and sat right behind the women’s singles final last year.
Smith has won his share of Gold, Silver, and Bronze. He has held a No. 1 singles rank in country and No. 3 in the world. Smith and Tagliareni have won medals in gender and mixed doubles. This group is no stranger to putting it on the line with global play competing in Australia, France, Greece, and Ecuador.
It has been a treasure to see the advancement of Brittany with her tennis and media experience. It has been a delight to see Ryan developing into a young skilled and respected tennis professional and coach.
The first time that I met Brittany and Ryan was in 2016, I interviewed them at a memorial fundraiser tournament for 19-year Manatee High School coach Brian McAlister. I did not know that they were impaired. When I discovered that they were both autistic and told my wife, Carolyn, she said to me that “you owe them more than a stand-up talking head interview”. Immediately I contacted Ryan’s mother. We arranged for a sit-down interview with Brittany and Ryan. Quickly in our 30-minute session I discovered the passion and commitment that they both had for the game.
From right: Kevin Meade, Rachel Sweatt, Brittany Tagliareni and Ryan Smith. Photo courtesy of USTA.
Ryan shared that he would like to give back to the game and become a coach. With his likeable demeanor and nearby location, I wanted to mentor him. I approached the USPTA (United States Professional Tennis Association) about his desire to be a teaching professional. We worked with John Embree, Fred Viancos, Trish Faulker, Chuck Gill, Jason Gilbert and Lisa Pugliese LaCroix/ Love Serving Autism. They were all encouraging and supportive.
Our journey to Ryan’s professional career started with assisting in kids clinics with Paul Lederman at the Lakewood Ranch Country Club and at Lakewood National with Nate Griffin for a few seasons. Our next opportunity to work together was at The Lake Club as Ryan became the Assistant Professional.
After five years of working together it has been a joy to see Ryan develop into a young, accomplished teaching professional. His on-court skill, public relations, clay court maintenance, racquet stringing and gripping service have reached an industry valued level. It was a delight to interview Ryan at the 2019 USPTA Florida Convention when he was honored with the diversity award. That night he realized that he had earned the respect of his fellow professionals. It has been impressive to see Ryan working with the Buddy Up Program and the Special Olympics organization to give back to the game.
Barry Holman, Athletes Without Limits co-founder and president of the board, was on court with the athletes and shared his feelings. This was a great experience to allow them to show that they are true tennis players to a wider audience.
“It means so much to be in Armstrong Stadium showing the athletes’ ability, their tennis skill, the passion for this court, maybe breaking down preconceived notions people have about who are tennis players and who are not,” Holman said. Andrea Snead, USTA Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, added, “The athletes and family members were beyond excited to be here at the grandest of all slams. On the court, these players shined and showed exactly what it looks like when access meets opportunity.”
Koz: Brittany and Ryan, what was it like playing at the US Open in Louis Armstrong Stadium?
Brittany: It was like a dream come true. When I knew that this year that I was in the US Open as a player, it was totally amazing. I love being part of the tennis world and this was remarkable. There was a motive to practice and train harder. I wanted my best shot, my forehand, even better for the Open. It was a very exciting and a close match with only a 2-point difference in the Tie-Break. It couldn’t have been any better.
Ryan: As soon as we got the invitation to play at the US Open, I knew that I had to be there! It was cool to be there and be interviewed before the match. I did receive a text telling me to just Keep Smiling if I win a great shot or hit a not so great shot. Then I saw your name Koz at the end of the text. Why didn’t you tell me that 6 years ago? I felt like I was a role model to all the intellectually impaired kids who wanted to get into a sport. It was a terrific feeling. It was unbelievable to play at Armstrong Stadium after knowing how many legend players had played there before. It was a great match to the final point. Everything was exciting. I wanted to win for all the support that I had from family, Special Olympics and the members who I work for at The Lake Club.
Written by: Dave "Koz" Kozlowski. Kozlowski is one of the USPTA's first 17 Master Professionals in the world. His show was previously broadcast on The Tennis Channel and he was named the USTA Broadcaster of the Year. Top photo: Koz. This article also appears in the November/December 2023 issue of Florida Tennis Magazine. Be sure to subscribe for expanded coverage, exclusive interviews, and in-depth tennis news.