Prescott’s tennis phenom: The rise of Andrew Bogdanov and his paralympic dreams

Andrew Bogdanov’s, right, quick rise in the world of wheelchair tennis is aided by the support of his longtime partner, Sharon Hemerka. (Photo courtesy of Chris Howard)

PRESCOTT – Prescott is not the first place you’d expect to find one of the world’s top tennis players, but it’s within the tri-cities area nestled between the mountains where you’ll find Andrew Bogdanov. It’s here on the courts of Prescott High School where the No. 2-ranked quad tennis player in the U.S. and No. 22 in the world perfects his craft. When he started less than three years ago, Bogdanov could have never imagined the heights he would reach with just a ball and a racket.

To start this January morning, Bogdanov arrives at the New Horizons Disability Empowerment Center where he serves as the fitness coordinator, running a gym fashioned with equipment for both able-bodied and disabled people. As he shows off the facility, his girlfriend, Sharon Hemerka, arrives and gives restaurant recommendations for lunch in the afternoon.

She then hops on a treadmill as Bogdanov recalls the snowboarding accident 10 years ago that left him paralyzed from the chest down and how far he has come since then.

“I tell people all the time, although I’m in a wheelchair I still do everything I did before the accident, it just looks different,” Bogdanov said. “I still drive, but I drive with hand controls. I still play tennis, but I do it in a wheelchair. I still bike, but I have a hand cycle that I use. There’s ways that you can do things, they just may look a little bit different. But I don’t think by any means having a disability or being in a chair should slow you down at all.”

An athlete and adrenaline seeker before the injury, Bogdanov was already doing pull-ups in the hospital just a week after the accident and has since competed in triathlons. He also enjoyed water tubing, skydiving and cycling, played basketball, football, golf, lacrosse, softball and even hit the slopes again. But it’s tennis that caught his eye.

“Sports was always a huge part of my life and I had a passion for being outside and being active, and then once COVID came along … team sports came to a halt,” Bogdanov said. “Some buddies and I and my girlfriend decided to grab a couple of rackets and head out, because it was a way that we could still play a sport and social distance with COVID going on.”

He immediately fell in love with the sport, feeling a connection he never had with other activities.

“Tennis is so mental and physical, there’s so much to it,” Bogdanov said. “You’re out there fighting to make the smart move, make the right shot, and put pressure on your opponent. There’s a lot to it, and I just really liked that aspect of the game.”

Given Bogdanov’s athletic prowess, he fittingly met Hemerka at Planet Fitness. Hemerka would work out on the last treadmill “because it was a good spot under the fan,” while Bogdanov used the hand cycle next to her. However, the two didn’t start to get to know each other until a chance encounter at the grocery store.

“I was kind of trying to see where he was going in the store and check him out, and I think he kind of caught me,” Hemerka sheepishly admits. “There was really no way to avoid the fact that we recognized each other. He seemed like a really great person, charming and good looking. So who wouldn’t stop and say, ‘Hi?’”

One side effect of the spinal cord injury Bogdanov deals with is that he cannot sweat. After putting forth physical effort, his skin will be hot to the touch. Hemerka works as his “medical physio team” to ensure he stays healthy during matches. She ensures Bogdanov is ready with a spray bottle, ice and towels so he can keep his concentration on the match.

“I’m looking at all the things that that entails, the medical aspects of being in a wheelchair, so that he can focus on being that athlete with one thing on his mind, and that’s performing to his best ability,” Hemerka said.

The driving force behind Bogdanov’s rise

Along with his family and Hemerka, there is one other character who Bogdanov credits with elevating him to the position he’s in today: Chris Howard, his coach.

“He’s been able to make time for me and work with me on a daily basis,” Bogdanov said. “He’s been there by my side helping me improve my game, work on the things that I need to work on, whether it’s improving my serve returns or whatever that may be.”

Howard’s coaching has taken Bogdanov from never picking up a racket less than three years ago to one of the top players in the world. Similarly to Bogdanov though, Howard credits the other for their mutual success.

“Jumping into tennis and seeing him progress was rapid,” Howard said. “That doesn’t even happen to able-bodied players very often. So he went from being a [division] C player, to the B’s to the A’s to the Open. And then we had the conversation, ‘What do you think about possibly turning professional?’ It’s (a) fantastic, short journey.”

Once at the Prescott High School tennis courts, Bogdanov transitions from his everyday chair to a tennis one. Howard begins talking about everything and anything without pause, and Bogdanov playfully makes fun of his coach for this. “Sometimes I can go on tangents, but he keeps me in check,” Howard jokes.

The two met at the Yavapai College tennis courts which Howard managed at the time.

“He was on the upper courts with a group of other wheelchair players that I had not met before, which was unusual, because I thought I knew everybody in Prescott,” Howard said.

Not recognizing the group from his 30-plus years managing the courts, Howard decided to introduce himself to Bogdanov and the other wheelchair players with him. Howard had previously coached another wheelchair player, Nanette Oatley Johnson, to a 2001 US Open singles and doubles championship and saw Bogdanov’s passion, so he figured, ‘Why not coach this guy?’ From there, the two practiced once or twice a week.

“At this time, I never thought that it was something that I would go pro with,” Bogdanov said. “I just thought that tennis was something that I really enjoyed and allowed me to continue to be active.”

Bogdanov’s game continued to progress, the practice sessions became more frequent, and soon enough, he quickly climbed the ladder and got classified by the International Tennis Federation and turned professional.

“Andrew is really incredible. He is good at anything that he decides he wants to do,” Hemerka said of her partner’s ascent in tennis. “He was getting better and better and better constantly, and his level of tennis was just surreal.”

Chris Howard, left, and Andrew Bogdanov frequently engage in spirited training sessions to prepare for upcoming competitions in pursuit of Paralympic dreams. (Photo courtesy of Chris Howard)

Chris Howard, left, and Andrew Bogdanov frequently engage in spirited training sessions to prepare for upcoming competitions in pursuit of Paralympic dreams. (Photo courtesy of Chris Howard)

From local courts to the world stage

Today practice starts out with some volleys, then moves on to cross-court shots with an emphasis on hitting each side of the court consistently with solid, heavy topspin. Bogdanov rolls along the hard court, hustling to swat balls back across the net. Unlike traditional tennis, wheelchair tennis allows two bounces (with the first being in the court of play), but most of the time he’s able to get to his spot without needing the extra bounce.

Whether Bogdanov is up close hitting a volley, practicing his serve or stretching out for a shot barely within reach, it’s clear there’s a concentration and discipline to him that many others don’t possess. Great at locating his shots, he also boasts a backhand with wicked spin which jumps off at you.

Taking a break to cool down with a half-gallon spray bottle, Bogdanov shares an anecdote about his November trip to Santiago, Chile, representing Team USA in the Parapan American Games. After one match, he gave two of his rackets to kids in the crowd. He then took home a bronze medal in doubles alongside partner David Wagner, the No. 1-ranked player in the U.S. and No. 4 in the world. However, this wasn’t the first time Bogdanov represented his country on the international stage.

Bogdanov competed in a tournament in England during February 2023, but was eliminated in the quarterfinals despite a positive performance. Done earlier than expected, he and Hemerka decided to take a train up to Edinburgh, Scotland, for a mini vacation.

“He always wants to do everything perfect,” Hemerka said. “I’m trying to explain to him, you had a great match.”

“[She was] like, ‘You did really well against this top 10 player,’ but inside, I was still like, ‘I really wish I would have won that.’” Bogdanov said. “I was kind of bummed. I was hoping to do better.”

That’s when Bogdanov got the call.

“Literally on that train ride, I had gotten a call from one of the Team USA coaches,” Bogdanov remembers. “And they said, ‘You had a really good match against Silva from Brazil. Your scores were really good, and we want to present you with this opportunity to come play with Team USA at the World Team Cup in Portugal later this year.’

“I’m listening, but I can’t hear [because] he has his AirPods on. I couldn’t contain my tears,” Hemerka said. Bogdanov took the opportunity quicker than his next breath, then told her the great news.

One other family happened to be on the same train car as them when they got the call. The family had overheard their conversation and celebrated with Bogdanov and Hemerka. In an emotionally overwhelming moment, the strangers from different countries embraced. At the World Team Cup in Portugal, Bogdanov took home a bronze medal.

“It was fantastic. It was like a dream come true,” Howard said of finding out Bogdanov had been selected to play. “They only normally take the top two or three quad players to represent the country. So he had to, and did, reach that number two spot in the USA in the quad division.”

As practice resumes, Howard gets himself into a tennis wheelchair. “This is the part where I get in the chair and he beats up on me so he feels good, and by the end of it, I feel awful,” Howard jokes again.

Though not dealing with any injury or condition, Howard has taught himself how to maneuver and play in the chair to give Bogdanov the same angles on shots he’ll see against competitors. Again, Bogdanov races up and down, left and right across a court the same size as able-bodied players use. Anyone watching can clearly see the immense arm strength, coordination and stamina it takes to operate the wheelchair. As he approaches the ball, Bogdanov can stop on a dime and rotate his chair into his forehand to get power behind the ball on his returns.

“I think the big thing is getting to know each individual player’s ability levels and what their handicaps are,” Howard explains. “Andrew, for instance, is paralyzed from the chest down. A lot of [people] might be amputees, so there are different things they can do and different things they can’t do based on their disability.

“That’s the biggest thing other than that they’re normal athletes and normal people, and they have a zest for really wanting to play sports.”

Following training, Bogdanov, Howard and Hemerka meet at Limoncello, a local Italian restaurant. Bogdanov and Hemerka split garlic twists and a Capra pizza (goat cheese, soppressata and Calabrian chili) while Howard enjoys a panini and side salad. Throughout lunch in the yellow-walled eatery, conversation flows smoothly.

Bogdanov speaks about his previous career as a DJ and his love for EDM music. Hemerka does not share this love, but the two find common ground with classic rock as she proudly states he only played one EDM song on the four-and-a-half hour trip to Indian Wells, California, for a tournament in late January.

Hemerka speaks about being born and raised in Prescott while Bogdanov mentions his upbringing in Oregon, his time at Northern Arizona University and the three investment properties he owns in Prescott, Chino Valley and Phoenix. Howard tells of his 50-plus years teaching tennis in Ohio and Arizona, and being a founding member of the Prescott Area Tennis Association.

Talk turns to how expensive travel and maintenance are to be a professional player, and the couple mentions Howard organized a fundraiser for Bogdanov to afford a tennis wheelchair.

“Once we came up with this plan, that he was going to try to turn professional, he didn’t have a tennis wheelchair,” Howard said, explaining how many of the local pros donated their time and energy to run a tennis clinic raising money for Bogdanov. “They cost $6,000 to $7,000 to get the chair that he should be in to give him an opportunity to be the best he could be.”

Big dreams on Wheels

In 2022, Bogdanov appeared at the U.S. Open, but not on the court. Instead, he was a technician fixing up those chairs worth thousands of dollars, telling the other technicians that he’d be on the court someday. They laughed him off, said, ‘OK, sure,’ then continued working. Perhaps they would have gotten a bigger kick if he said he’d be there the very next year, but it’s exactly what he did.

“I never dreamed of being able to go to a Grand Slam,” Bogdanov said with a smile. “Having that U.S. Open experience under my belt is huge. It was great being there, and being able to play on ESPN and having my family fly out and be there and support me. Another goal of mine is hopefully to make it to the Paralympics in Paris this year.”

If he wants to get a Paralympics logo tattoo to join the rest of his ink, he’ll have to raise his ranking. As currently constructed, the top 12 ranked quad players in the world will automatically qualify for the Paralympics with an additional four wildcard spots open for other entrants. Where he’s currently ranked, Bogdanov’s only chance to make it would be as a wildcard.

That’s not to say things aren’t trending in the right direction. His doubles partner, Wagner, will likely make the Paralympics based on his world ranking and will need an American to compete with him in doubles events.

“It’s not guaranteed because those four wildcard spots can go to other people that deserve a doubles spot with another country mate,” Bogdanov explained. “There’s definitely an opportunity there, but I just want to solidify my spot.”

He will have chances to improve his world ranking and guarantee a spot in the Paralympics during the coming weeks at tournaments in England, Georgia and Louisiana. Whether he makes it to the Paralympics or not, Bogdanov and everyone around him are grateful for the opportunities he’s been given in both his everyday life and in tennis.

They encourage anyone, no matter what disability they are dealing with, to not let it discourage them from chasing their dreams.

“Find what you love to do and keep chasing that, whether it’s sports, whether it’s art, traveling, business, whatever that may be, keep challenging yourself,” Bogdanov said. “Keep living, keep doing those things because there’s still so much joy that you can find in life.”

With tears of pride welling up in his eyes, Howard’s impressions of Bogdanov could not be more clear.

“You look at the players that you work with, you never have that expectation [of them going pro],” Howard said. “You just hope they enjoy the game of tennis, and they learn to love it like you love it. But he definitely has a real specialness about him.”

David Bernauer DAY-vid BER-now-er (he/his/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

David Bernauer expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Bernauer has previously worked in the Phoenix Sports Bureau and TV Production & Graphics Lab, as well as interning with the Florida Collegiate Summer League. He is a contributing writer with The Sixth Man Show.