Yeah, did you see me vomiting up pickle juice? I was on the pickle juice early in the third set. Whoever invented that, they need a raise. Dylan Alcott, the 31-year-old Australian wheelchair tennis star, on the physical toll taken during his three-set win over 19-year-old sensation Niels Vink in the quad singles draw.
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Dylan Alcott, quad wheelchair tennis superstar and pickle-juice enthusiast, prepares to say goodbye
"I think in life, not just in tennis, you've just got to find a way sometimes," said the 31-year-old, seven-time defending Australian Open champion.
Published Jan 25, 2022
No matter what event you’re talking about in a tennis tournament, players like Alcott, Rafael Nadal or Simona Halep, have something that the young talents—most of whom grew up adoring the older cohort—desperately want. And those old salts will do anything in their power to hang on to what they have, which includes quaffing enough pickle juice during a match to touch off a depth charge in your stomach.
Alcott’s mastery of Vink, his heir apparent in quad tennis, was a rematch of a comparably bruising clash at the recent Tokyo Paralympic Games. That contest eliminated the greatest obstacle in Alcott’s road to the gold medal, but that wasn’t even the crowning touch in Alcott’s 2021 campaign. Just weeks later at the US Open, Alcott succeeded in an enterprise that thwarted another No. 1, Novak Djokovic: completing a Grand Slam—and, hence, a Golden Slam, something accomplished only by one other player, Steffi Graf.
Vink was Alcott’s opponent in that US Open final, and in pickling the Dutchman again last weekend in Melbourne, 6-7 (1), 6-6-4, 6-2, Alcott rolled a little closer to his goal of retiring a champion in his home town. He is vying to be singles champion in his division for a remarkable eighth consecutive year.
When pressed for how he keeps warding off Vink and other young challengers, Alcott told reporters:
“Probably because I'm an old, washed-up, experienced tennis player, I reckon. I think in life, not just in tennis, you've just got to find a way sometimes. Like in everything that I do, if I want to do something I just find a way to do it. [This] wasn't the best I have played tonight but I found a way. I kind of ran away with it at the end there because I just kind of kept going, kept going, kept going.”
There’s something fitting about Alcott being an adherent to the ancient and honorable habit of drinking pickle juice, rather than one of those secret voodoo-sauce cocktails so many elite singles competitors down on changeovers. He may be a man of his times—Alcott hosts a talk show; he’s known for “wheelchair surfing” at music festivals, and his partner is a sex therapist—but in more important ways he is, to borrow Rod Laver’s expression, “fair dinkum.” Meaning, “genuine.”
The term is often applied to those who qualify as “old school,” which is where the pickle juice comes in. It has long been the preferred method of ingesting sodium and warding off cramps while hydrating for athletes who revel in the grind of marathon matches in infernal heat. And what could be more old school than that?
Some players retch at the very thought of drinking pickle juice, never mind slurping it through parched lips on a 100-degree day. Nevertheless, it has been the home-remedy of choice for a certain kind of no-frills athlete. Harold Solomon, a Top 5 ATP star in the late 1970s and a former French Open finalist, was one of the more celebrated of pickle-juice enthusiasts.
Just to give you an idea of what “Solly” was all about, he drank 22 bottles of water and lost nine pounds in one of his more memorable red-clay outings.
It was by no means a given that Alcott would find his way into the exclusive fraternity of pickle-juicers. Like other true-blue Aussies, he seemed to be born with sporting DNA. He was also born with a tumor wrapped around his spinal cord. The tumor was successfully cut out, but that ingrained love of sports was not. Alcott is a lifelong paraplegic, but he knew from the earliest of times that he would play sports—specifically wheelchair tennis and basketball.
Alcott flourished in both games, and made a sensational debut in the 2008 Paralympics with the Australian national basketball squad (known as the “Rollers”). Just 17 at the time, Alcott helped the Rollers win a gold medal. He finally made the switch to tennis in 2014. Since then, Alcott has played in 19 majors (not including the current one), winning all but four.
After overcoming Vink, Alcott routed long-time rival Andy Lapthorne, 6-3, 6-0, to advance to Thursday’s final. Afterward, Alcott praised Lapthorne to reporters.
“We had some great battles here at the Australian Open,” the Aussie said. “We had a really nice embrace at the end where he said, ‘Thanks for everything,’—thanks so much for changing his life, my life.
“We were the first to play on the big courts here, first Grand Slam to do it. I remember I beat him in the gold-medal game in Rio [in 2016]. Of all the bars in Rio, our families went to the same one. We all had beers together. Even though he'd lost. How cool is that? All my mates, all his mates.”
Now that’s old school. Just like pickle juice.
Update: On Friday, Alcott fell to Sam Schroder, 7-5, 6-0.