Emmy Kaiser: Photo finish
Emmy Kaiser is a big fan of photography. The 22-year-old Kentucky native has also played wheelchair tennis in 16 different countries. So during her time off the court, she has documented her travels through the lens of her camera.
When she competes at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, which started Aug. 29, a reluctant and somewhat shy Kaiser will surely be the subject of other photographers’ work. Kaiser opened her competition with a 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 win against Myung-Hee Hwang of Korea.
“Yes, but I prefer to be behind the camera,” Kaiser said last Wednesday, just an hour before she was scheduled to hop on a plane for London.
“I know I will be playing in front of a huge crowd and that is a factor for me and how I will perform. The whole not-wanting-to-be-in-front-of-a-camera thing plays into making me nervous. But I’ve learned how to deal with it.”
There’s no need to be nervous. It’s just the biggest tennis tournament of her young career.
To combat her nerves, Kaiser decided to hit the books. She just earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and, the day after she returns from London, she’s headed to Ball State University to start work on a master’s degree in sports psychology.
“That’s why I am happy to study psychology,” said Kaiser, who recently completed an internship in which she worked with a notable sports psychologist. “Tennis can be a mind game. Through psychology, I have learned to focus on the biological side of the game and stay stable.”
As a member of the U.S. Paralympic Junior National team, when Kaiser was 14, she and her teammates met with a sports psychologist during a training session, and she was interested in the profession immediately.
“I've been hooked ever since,” Kaiser said.
Way before she set foot inside a college classroom, however, Kaiser was playing tennis. Born with spina bifida (meaning open spine), Kaiser has been playing on the international wheelchair tour for the last eight years — the first four were as a junior player — so traveling around the world for events is nothing new to her.
She was first exposed to the sport at age 5 when she attended a wheelchair tennis clinic near her home in Fort Mitchell, Ky.
She played other sports growing up and did ballet for 10 years, but tennis stuck. Kaiser was the top-ranked singles player and third doubles player on her high school team as a senior and played against able-bodied players regularly.
The same rules apply for wheelchair tennis, except the ball can bounce twice during rallies, instead of just once for able-bodied tennis players. The idea of getting around the court and putting your opponent in uncomfortable situations still applies. The competition wheelchairs used today feature angled wheels for better movement and rear support to help during serves.
Kaiser graduated from college a semester early and has been solely focused on tennis since January.
“This will be the biggest competition of my life but, oddly enough, there’s really no pressure,” said Kaiser, who is considered to be one of the top-ranked wheelchair female tennis players from the United States and has carried a Top 25 world ranking for the last several years.
“There are expectations for the Top 5 players to bring home a medal, and I hope to be among them, but really, I’m just happy to make it and I want to see how I do out there,” she added.
Kaiser is competing as a singles player in London and also will team up with doubles partner Mackenzie Soldan, of Louisville, Ky. Soldan rallied past Kaiser, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, in the gold-medal singles match at the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, so the two players know each other well.
After Kaiser just missed a spot on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Team that competed in Beijing, she earned wild card invitations to compete at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2011.
“This past year was my favorite because I played doubles with Daniela di Toro, who is a former No. 1 player in the world, and we almost beat the top-ranked team in the world,” Kaiser said. “It was our first match together and if we had a little more experience together, I’m sure we could have won.”
Kasier and di Toro, from Australia, fell to the Dutch pair Esther Vergeer and Sharon Walraven, 6-2, 7-5 in the tournament semifinals. Vergeer and Walraven went on to win their second consecutive U.S. Open doubles title.
Di Toro, the 2010 French Open doubles champion and a two-time Masters doubles champion, asked the tournament director for available doubles partners and actually sought out Kaiser before the tournament.
“I was so excited when I got the email,” Kaiser remembered. “It was really cool because that was a Grand Slam event and she wanted to play with me? It was a huge honor.”
The experience also boosted Kaiser’s confidence and chipped away at her fear of playing in front of a large crowd. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City — the venue for the U.S. Open — can hold a lot of spectators, but Kaiser is expecting an even larger turnout in London as tickets for several days have already been sold out. Wheelchair tennis will be played at Eton Manor, the only new, permanent London 2012 Paralympic venue which features nine competition courts with a vibrant blue color.
“I learned so much from playing at the U.S. Open and it taught me what I’m capable of,” said Kaiser, who has played in Nottingham, England, but is in London for the first time. “I know all the girls I will see at the Paralympics and it’s going to be a strong group. It’s the best 32 players in the world, so to be included is a big deal for me.”
There will be no wheelchair competition this year at the U.S. Open because of the Paralympic Games.
In the meantime, she will leave the documenting to her boyfriend, who is also a photographer.
“He knows I prefer to take the pictures and not be in them,” Kaiser said. “But this is the Paralympics — I guess I’ll let it slide this time.”