What Stephane Houdet learned from Johan Cruyff

 - Danielle Rossingh

Wheelchair tennis legend ready for another Roland-Garros campaign with an eye on Paris 2024 Games

Stephane Houdet, Roland Garros 2019© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

The late Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff used to have a saying: “Every disadvantage has its advantage.”

It’s the same motto two-time Roland-Garros wheelchair singles champion Stéphane Houdet lives by after a round of golf with the legendary Ajax and FC Barcelona forward and coach at an event in 2004 altered the course of his life.

Meeting Cruyff “was the beginning of a new story for me,” Houdet said in an interview this summer. “I had a big change.”

Houdet, a runner-up in the men’s doubles with his fellow Frenchman Nicolas Peiffer at last month’s US Open, starts his Roland-Garros campaign in wheelchair singles against Britain’s Alfie Hewett on Wednesday.


After losing his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1996, Houdet took up golf while he also continued working as a veterinarian. By 2001, he was France’s No. 1 disabled player.

Houdet and the Dutchman got on so well on the golf course, they were soon working together on developing a world golf tour for players with disabilities through Cruyff’s foundation in Barcelona.

“I started to work on this project and at the beginning he told me, ‘You know, we are very involved in another sport which is very well-organised so you should have a look, we are going to do the same with golf, so go and watch this one,” said Houdet. “And that was wheelchair tennis. I didn’t know it.”

Stephane Houdet, Roland Garros 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

A former junior tennis player, Houdet was completely taken by the sport from his youth. After golf was left out of the Paralympic programme for the 2012 London Olympics in 2005, he decided to dedicate himself full-time to wheelchair tennis.

Success came quick. Four years after his meeting with Cruyff, Houdet won a gold medal in wheelchair doubles at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. He successfully defended his Olympic title at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, rose to No.1 in the world and clinched four Grand Slam singles titles and 19 major doubles championships. 

Years later, Cruyff came to watch his old friend play in a tournament in Amsterdam. The Frenchman pulled his 2008 gold medal out of his bag and told Cruyff he would never have won it without him.

“He said ‘Congratulations, that was a good change for you, and you took the right decision’,” recalled Houdet. “Like Johan used to say ‘Every disadvantage has its advantage’,”

“That was my motto, too.”

Although Houdet turns 50 next month, he has decided to postpone his retirement until the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The wheelchair tennis event will be held at Roland-Garros, where he has won two singles titles and seven doubles championships.

The Frenchman said he had initially planned to bow out in 2018 to focus on a full-time job in the French army aimed at rehabbing soldiers through sports, but changed his mind when Paris won the bid to host the Summer Games.

Houdet may have won almost everything there is to win in his sport, but he still feels like he can improve.

“In tennis, it’s funny, the day you win, you don’t have time to celebrate, because the week after, you have to defend, and every opponent wants to beat you,” said Houdet, a Roland-Garros champion in 2012 and 2013.

“It’s the kind of thing that is never finished. And when you lose, you have another opportunity to win, so for me, it’s more about what I can improve, all the time.”