By Karen Ronney
Lauren Haneke-Hopp believes in dreaming big, achieving her goals, and then paying it forward. The adaptive athlete is on her way to the pinnacle of wheelchair tennis success and recently took time to inspire younger players to do the same. In addition to her busy schedule, she volunteers to coach younger wheelchair athletes to pave the road to tennis success.
Hanake-Hopps, a La Mesa resident who is now a sophomore at the University of Alabama, picked up a tennis racket in the seventh grade. Her dreams were to make the girls’ varsity team at Patrick Henry High and one day play in the 2020 Paralympics. She didn’t know how it would happen, just that she wanted it to become her future reality.
“I played a lot of wheelchair sports but I loved tennis,” the dynamic blue-eyed blonde said. “It was a challenge because I didn’t know any kids my age playing tennis. All of the other wheelchair beginners were adults and they hit the ball so much harder. So I figured the best way to do it was join a team when I got to high school.”
Hanake–Hopps practiced for almost five years and improved her tennis skills while training with wheelchair and able-bodied players. She earned the respect of her Patrick Henry High tennis peers and was named to varsity squad and voted team captain. She helped her team reach the CIF Division II finals and the only adaptation was hitting the ball after two bounces instead of one.
Two years ago, Haneke-Hopps became the top player in the country in Women’s A Division for singles and doubles. She earned a scholarship to compete for the University of Alabama’s Adaptive Tennis Team and never looked back.
“My game needed to excel and I knew college was the path for me,” Haneke-Hopps said. “In addition to getting an education, there was a possibility to get into the national tennis scene but now it’s for real.”
Haneke-Hopps moved into the Women’s Open Division and is now ranked No. 11 in the United States and No. 73 in the International Tennis Federation. She was named to the USA World Team Cup squad along with San Diego’s Dana Mathewson, and the U.S. finished with a bronze medal in the international wheelchair tennis event in Italy. The Americans logged a 2-0 victory over Switzerland, in a field that included a total of 40 teams from 29 countries. With this win, the U.S. Women return to the World Team Cup medal podium for the first time since finishing as runner-up in 2003. The World Team Cup is referred to as the Davis Cup and Fed Cup of wheelchair tennis.
Hanake-Hopps’ success in adaptive tennis is the source of inspiration for 11-year-old Claire Dermody of San Diego, who is just starting her journey in wheelchair tennis. Dermody was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair for sports. She strives to emulate Haneke-Hopps, and the two play tennis together each week during the summer.
“Claire wants to be an athlete just like Lauren,” said Claire’s mother, Peg Dermody. “She wants to play on the high school team with able-bodied kids. She wants to play in college and do exactly what Lauren does with her life. The bottom line is she sees Lauren live her life without limitations and she wants to do the same.”
The road to success in school and adaptive sports wasn’t easy for Hanake-Hopps, and it was determination and drive that made the difference. She is majoring in exercise science and one day wants to work with disabled athletes using tennis as therapy.
“Parents need to see that their kids can overcome physical and mental challenges,” Haneke-Hopps said. “I see that same drive in Claire that I have and I want to help her. She is going to be amazing one day and it gives me hope that her life will be better because she can play tennis. It’s all about passing it on.”
Peg Dermody also sees the hope being passed between mentor and mentee.
“Lauren has paved the road so that Claire believes anything is possible,” she said. “That is the greatest gift anyone can give a child. We are so grateful for Lauren.”
—Karen Ronney is an award-winning author, USTA Tennis service representative and the Girls’ Varsity Tennis Coach at Patrick Henry High School.