Dylan Alcott was no stranger to the pressure when he rolled into Rod Laver Arena on Australia Day to contest the quad singles final of his home Grand Slam.
Nor was the audience a stranger to him.
The popular Melburnian had, after all, memorably claimed the four previous Australian Open titles and won dual Paralympics gold medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, after gold medal success with the Australian wheelchair basketball team, the Rollers, at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and silver at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
And if that wasn’t enough to acquaint the crowd with the effervescent Alcott, there’s also his other roles in the spotlight – television host, radio presenter, tennis commentator, motivational speaker, philanthropist and brand ambassador.
But it was this stage that would carry the greatest impact. Alcott had featured in the first Grand Slam wheelchair tennis final ever to be held on a centre court when he defeated Andy Lapthorne at Rod Laver Arena for the 2017 Australian Open title, and two years on, there was another breakthrough when his 2019 showdown with long-time rival David Wagner was broadcast live nationally on Channel 9.
“That win meant the most to me,” said an emotional Alcott. “Because if you put yourself out there, it puts more pressure on you. It really does. To broadcast it live to the world, never been done before in a final, that’s huge for the movement of Para-sports, everything that I believe in.”
That fans were treated to such a superb quality final – Alcott down 2-5 in the second set before securing the 6-4, 7-6(2) victory – only added to the positivity it generated.
“That was the highest quality tennis,” said the five-time champion, who also claimed the Australian Open doubles title with his close friend Heath Davidson. “To be able to broadcast [that], it meant a lot.”
It wasn’t the first time that Alcott had shown such resilience at his home tournament; battling a bacterial infection in 2018, he left his hospital bed on the day of the final to win a fourth quad singles title at Melbourne Park.
Fortitude is a quality Alcott has long held. Born with a tumour wrapped around his spinal cord, he underwent major surgery when he was just a few weeks old, resulting in paraplegia. While support from family and friends was plentiful as Alcott grew up in bayside Melbourne, there were also myriads of challenges. Experiencing bullying and loneliness as a teenager, an overweight Dylan also grappled with depression.
“On the whole, I knew my life had value. And yet I couldn’t quite be comfortable with who I was,” Alcott wrote in his autobiography ‘Able’. “When you are really different from everyone around you and you don’t have any role models whose path you can follow, well, you can’t hold out against bullying forever.”
Sport provided a positive turning point. As well as wheelchair tennis, Alcott also enjoyed Para-swimming and wheelchair basketball. After peaking at world No. 4 in the ITF junior rankings in 2008, the natural extrovert thrived for a time in team sports, and at 17, became the youngest member of the Australian Rollers to ever win a Paralympic gold medal.
“When I made the switch to play tennis from basketball, I remember I said to Tennis Australia, ‘I really want you to treat me like a professional tennis player first and foremost, who just happens to have a disability’,” said Alcott. “I wanted to get treated like Nick Kyrgios did, or Thanasi Kokkinakis, or Sam Stosur or Lleyton Hewitt.”
Combining that attitude with an impressive work ethic reaped big rewards for the gold-medal winning Alcott, also a nine-time Grand Slam champion across quad singles and doubles competition, as well as a long-time world No. 1.
Along the way, Alcott has accumulated a string of enviable experiences. A hitting session with Hollywood star Will Smith during the 2018 Australian Open was followed by a royal encounter at Wimbledon, when Alcott met Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
It’s unsurprising that there’s also huge support from fellow players, with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic among the many thrilled by the Australian’s success. “I’ve said it before, these guys [wheelchair tennis players] are heroes to me, they really are,” Djokovic said. “They make the game of tennis more beautiful and more unique because of what they do and how they do it.”
As similar accolades flow from a growing fan base, nothing means more to Alcott than the inspiration he’s provided to young people facing similar challenges to those he experienced.
“I remember as a 14-year-old lying in bed and all I wanted to do was make it in the mainstream in some way,” he tearfully recalled after lifting his latest Australian Open trophy. “I wanted to show we could be normal people, get a job, have a partner … I just wanted to see people with a disability succeeding in the mainstream.”
With a leading role on The Footy Show following his latest Grand Slam titles, Alcott has clearly done that. As he continues to challenge perceptions of disability, he has become the role model he desperately craved as a teenager.
“I’m the lucky one who has it at the moment,” said Alcott. “The next generation of young athletes, other sports, they deserve the same thing. They train just as hard as the Roger Federers, Usain Bolts, Michael Phelpses, whoever it is. It means the world to me to be able to cut through, break that glass ceiling. Hopefully it flows on for years to come and this becomes the norm.”
By Vivienne Christie, Tennis Australia