Dylan Alcott enjoying last hurrah as he sets up final shot at yet more grand slam glory

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Dylan Alcott wheels out of the tunnel and into Kia Arena, either talking to himself or bopping to an unheard beat. Cap backwards, signature Nike kicks, ready to roll. One match stands between him and the Australian Open final – his last before retirement – and he is serving first against Britain’s Andy Lapthorne.

“Good serve, Dyl,” he says to himself after the opening point when Lapthorne overcooks his return. Alcott has no problem telling anyone exactly how he is feeling. That includes his opponents, and a couple of games later, right before he breaks Lapthorne’s serve, he booms down the court “Good job, Dyl”. The celebrations only grow louder the closer he edges towards the 6-3, 6-0 victory. His penultimate wheelchair tennis match, period.

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Not many people can get away with referring to themselves in the third person. Alcott somehow does, perhaps partly because of his self-deprecating humour, but also partly because of what he has come to represent.

Few match the Australian’s drive to reshape perceptions around disability. Among the projects to which he dedicates his time and his name are the Dylan Alcott Foundation, Get Skilled Access and AbilityFest – Australia’s first accessible and fully inclusive music festival (he has also crowd surfed at Coachella, in his chair).

He is Victoria’s nomination for Australian of the year and will find out on Tuesday night if he has won the big one (“I think I’m no chance … I think Patty Mills is going to win”).

In many ways he already has. His resume reads 15 grand slam quad singles titles and a further eight in doubles. In 2021 he became the first man in history to achieve a golden slam of all four major singles titles as well as Paralympic gold.

He has been Australian Open champion seven years running. By Thursday he could have an eighth title. On this occasion Alcott’s ball-striking was too strong for Lapthorne, who was courageous in defeat but also appeared to play through a shoulder problem.

He embraced his opposition at the net, then whooped the crowd. “I got a bit emotional, he is a beautiful man,” Alcott said. “He said thanks for everything, thanks for making his dreams come true. We did this together. Andy started before I did. We are the same age. First grand slam on a centre court was with this man, Andy Lapthorne.”

Dylan Alcott embraces his opponent and friend Andy Lapthorne at the net.
Dylan Alcott embraces his opponent and friend Andy Lapthorne at the net. Photograph: Ella Ling/REX/Shutterstock

Alcott has brought Australia and much of the world with him on his journey. The countless interviews at international tennis and sporting events, including the Invictus Games, ensure people living with impairments get time in the spotlight.

If he has to protest, he will. In 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic he accused the US Open of “disgusting discrimination” over its decision to drop the wheelchair event. When the tournament back-flipped and had it reinstated, he praised them wholeheartedly.

On Sunday, after his hard-fought quarter-final win over 19-year-old Dutchman Niels Vink, who he also defeated in the Tokyo 2020 semi-finals and then the US Open final, Alcott stood on court and thanked his family. “I hated myself growing up,” he said, “and the reason I don’t [anymore] is them.”

Alcott has spoken numerous times about how he was bullied during high school over his disability, something he had lived with since he was three weeks old when an operation to remove a tumour wrapped around his spinal cord was successful but left him a paraplegic.

Since then he has been in charge of his own image. Which is to say he is himself, and comfortable with everything that entails. Ebullient larrikinism speckled with unpolished realness is the general vibe. When he announced his retirement in November he joked he didn’t think anybody would turn up to his press conference. The room was full.

At Melbourne Park the aim is to go out on a high, a decision he made during a period of depression at a time which should have been joyous.

“I can’t tell you how much I struggled after the golden slam,” he said on Tuesday. “I had actual depression. I hadn’t seen my family – it was the biggest moment of my life, and I’m in a hotel.

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“I was watching my good mate [Melbourne Demons captain] Max Gawn kick on and party after the premiership, and I was still in quarantine. I’m normally the positive guy but it was really hard … so I went, ‘I can do two things: I can dial it in this Australian Open, go out every weekend and half-ass it and lose, or – because I can see the finish line – I can go all in, 11 sessions a week, every day, no break’.”

For the sake of his mental health he opted for the latter. “I’m really glad that I did,” he said. “And I look great, if I say so myself. That’s why I’m wearing no sleeves this year.”

Does he feel as good as he looks? In Melbourne’s infamous heat, not always.

“I was in the locker room with Gael Monfils,” he said after he beat Vink. “He won in straight [sets], we’re both, like, cooked. I was like, ‘We are old’, and he’s like 35. We were both like this [hands on hips], we were both laughing going, ‘Oh my god, I’m the oldest man in the world’.”

At 31, Alcott does not quite meet the criteria for golden oldie status, but he has earned the right to claim it anyway. The semi-final had left him “washed up” and in need of a beer. No doubt he will be offered one at tonight’s ceremony in Canberra, then he will return to Melbourne to play Sam Schröder of the Netherlands for the trophy.

“It would be unbelievable, but it wouldn’t be everything, right? I will live if I don’t win on Thursday,” he said. “I’ve got the best life in the world, regardless of whether I win … I’m just going to go out there and enjoy every little second of it, because I’ll never get that opportunity again.”

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