When Ryan Martin was 12, he, along with his family, suffered a horrible, traumatizing event that would change the course of all their lives.

Martin, his parents David and Sharan Kuperman and his two-year-old brother were returning home from a family outing on a January evening in 1987. As the family innocently stepped from its cars -- Martin and his mother had met his stepfather -- a crazed gunman appeared from the shadows without warning.

The assailant turned out to be a boyfriend of the family's ex-housekeeper, and thought the family was hiding her in the house. The gunman shot several times at David Kuperman from six feet and missed. He then turned on Ryan.

Two rounds into Ryan's back hit his spine and made him a paraplegic.

What could easily have been a tragic story with an unjustifiable ending, however, has turned into an inspirational, courageous lesson in life by Martin, now 16.

Before the shooting, he was a star center-halfback in the Montgomery County select soccer league, as well as an avid basketball and ski buff.

Doctors said Martin's recovery -- both physically and mentally -- was remarkably quick considering the extent of his injuries. Within five months, Martin was anxious to get on with his life. Soon, he was on a tennis court.

"I never really thought about {being paralyzed}," said Martin. "My mind was channeled elsewhere. After rehab, my mom pushed me to get back into sports."

A week after his intense therapy ended, Paul Perriman, Martin's high school coach at Edmund Burke, where he is now a junior, introduced him to Bob Schmonsees, a member of the Nation's Capital Wheelchair Tennis Association (NCWTA). After considerable convincing, they got Martin to try tennis.

"I didn't want to go at first," said Martin. "I thought I would just sit there in one place and they would throw tennis balls at me. I thought I would be embarrassed. But I wasn't that bad. I was surprised. I could get the ball over the net . . . and after the first couple times, I started to like it."

Learning to maneuver the wheelchair around the court was his toughest obstacle, but over the past four years, Martin has become one of the quickest players in wheelchair tennis. He has also become one of the best.

Wheelchair tennis started in 1979 and is growing rapidly. Basketball and track remain popular sports among wheelchair athletes, but tennis is allowing the disabled to broaden their horizons, said Brenda Gilmore, one of the country's top women's wheelchair players.

"Everybody has their own reasons for playing," said Gilmore. "Some like the competition. Others just like to socialize with other people in chairs."

Wheelchair tennis is the virtually same game as "able-bodied" tennis. The differences are that two bounces are allowed instead of one and the second bounce doesn't have to be within the court.

Unlike basketball and track, which segregate players into divisions based on the severity of the spinal injury, tennis is divided into five skill levels. The approximately 7,500 worldwide players can progress from level D to level A. The highest level is the open division.

Wheelchair tournaments throughout the world include the French Open and there is a Washington tournament that runs in conjunction with the Sovran Bank Classic. The U.S. Open is held annually in Irvine, Calif.

Last year, Martin became the youngest player to win his division in the U.S. Open as he won the level C championship.

He skipped over the B division this year and jumped into the A level. In Hawaii last week, Martin defeated Danny Hernandez, the No. 1-ranked A player in the world, 6-4, 6-0.

Martin is hesitant to enter the open division, a jump his coach Ken Guendell says is comparable to a Mid-Atlantic player joining the pro circuit.

"Now, he can just use his talent and turn it on whenever he wants," said Guendell. "But in the open division, he's going to have to be on from the moment he is on the court or the better players will take advantage of it."

Still, Martin expects to join the open circuit soon and wants to play in the 1996 Olympics, where wheelchair tennis will become an exhibition medal sport in 1992.

He already has the backing to make the jump. Dunlop tennis raquets, Everst and Jennings Wheelchairs and the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company have offered to sponsor trips that will send him around the country and abroad.

Despite his devotion to tennis, Martin has not taken the game so seriously that it has become an obsession. He still plays works hard at basketball and can consistently make three-point shots. He's hoping to join the Washington Warriors, a local wheelchair tennis team, next season.

"I can compete with my friends now," he said of basketball. "But they all have to wear shin guards."

This same light-hearted approach has gotten him through the last four rigorous years and he sees it as getting him through life.

"I feel bad for people in chairs that just sit in their houses," he said. "It's hard. People feel sorry for themselves. But I play sports and it keeps me happy."