L: Ninan Kumar; R: Brittany Tagliareni (Photo courtesy of Athletes Without Limits)
Freshman Ninan Kumar of the University of Chicago could have chosen from among some of the best junior players in Florida to be his teammate for the #OrlandoUnited Doubles Tennis Charity Tournament July 30th.
However, he knew exactly who he wanted his partner to be for the event: 26-year-old Brittany Tagliareni, an autistic athlete with multiple tennis titles in tournaments for those with physical and/or intellectual challenges. The two teamed up to capture the championship in a field that did not include any other players with limitations. In addition to autism, Brittany has motor-control issues caused by apraxia and dyspraxia, and auditory processing disorder.
"Brittany always followed what her older brother A.J. did," said her mother Cathy Tagliareni. "He was a gymnast so she did gymnastics. Then it was Tae Kwon Do and finally tennis." A.J. eventually had to stop gymnastics when he was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease at age 11. After taking a year off to focus on his health, A.J. began playing tennis. "He was naturally athletic and had a good stroke. He won tournaments by being a 'human backboard,'" his mother joked. "He was on the varsity team at 16, but just got too sick and could not continue."
Brittany continued to play tennis. "I was worried when she first started playing that visually she wouldn't be able to track the ball," Tagliareni said. "I hit around with her first because I wanted her to have some confidence before she started taking classes. She really loved it from the beginning. She still has that love for tennis. If she could consistently translate what she does in practice into matches, she would be very difficult to beat."
Earlier this year, Tagliareni noticed that her daughter was holding back in matches and stressed about the high expectations from her past success and knew of Kumar. "I told Ninan I wanted her to have fun and not be stressed," she said. "I wanted him to work with her."
Kumar was coaching at a facility in his hometown of Orlando and was happy to work with Brittany. "She came to practice at the facility and started taking lessons with me," he said. "She is one of the nicest people I have met. She has been playing well for a while and is extremely good."
Cathy Tagliareni saw Kumar compete at the Disney Summer Classic Florida Tennis Tournament (FTT) on July 16-17 in Kissimmee, Fla., where he and partner Jericho Grollman captured the championship. "I wanted to ask him if he would play in the Orlando tournament with Brittany," Tagliareni recalled. "Before I even get the sentence out, he said 'Yes I will play with her.' He could have played with anyone and dominated that tournament. It was phenomenal that he agreed to play and then it turned out to be something great."
The #OrlandoUnited Tournament was set up to benefit the "Pulse of Orlando," a local non-profit focused on reaching out with expeditious allocation of funds for the victims, survivors, and families of the Pulse Nightclub tragedy that occurred on June 12.
"I had been playing Florida Tennis Tournaments all summer and the Orlando one was special," Kumar said. "The tragedy happened one mile from the tennis center where I train. I wanted to play and bring awareness for the people and families who were affected."
The tournament raised more than $1,000 for victims of the Pulse Nightclub tragedy, according to the Florida Tennis Tour.
Brittany and Kumar earned an early-round bye and were in the pro shop when she spotted the championship trophy and said, "Ninan, I would like that trophy," her mother recalled. The duo went on to earn the hardware she coveted with a 6-4 quarterfinal victory and back-to-back 6-2 wins in the semifinals and final.
L-R: Tom Sweitzer with runners-up Brenton House & Kurt Collis, champions Brittany Tagliareni & Ninan Kumar,
and Charlie Williams (Photo courtesy of Orlando Tennis News)
"She was nervous about playing because it was her first time playing against athletes without limitations," Kumar said. "The other players didn't go quite as hard as usual on the serve, but did on their other shots. I could see them getting frustrated. She has a great forehand and can really hit the ball."
Tagliareni was confident her daughter would enjoy playing with Kumar and she was right. "When she is happy, she shakes her arms around her side," Tagliareni said. "She was having the best time ever. At one point, we were talking about the windy conditions and she said, 'Ninan, you need to embrace the wind!'"
A championship wasn't necessary for Tagliareni to consider her daughter's partnership with Kumar to be a success. "It is incredible what he has done for Brittany," she said. "There is something about him that makes her unbelievably happy. It wasn't just the tournament, but even hitting with her. One day when they were practicing, he hit a short shot and as she was running for the ball, she was saying, 'I love myself.' I can't thank him enough."
Kumar's maturity was evident to Tagliareni even before he started working with Brittany. "He just carries himself so well," she said. "He is very responsible and reliable. I keep thanking him for what he has done for Brittany and he says, "Thank you for letting me play with her.'"
"Ninan is a unique individual who has made an autistic girl so happy," Tagliareni concluded. "I think he is a fantastic human being."