The Grandy Man: Quad star Dylan Alcott aims for two Slams at US Open

by: Steve Tignor | August 28, 2019

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The US Open is more than just singles, doubles and juniors. The wheelchair and quad tournaments showcase some of the most dedicated players in the sport, with stories as incredible as their shotmaking.

Today, we're focusing on Dylan Alcott, the quad star who comes to Flushing Meadows seeking a unique kind of double. To learn more about wheelchair tennis, head to Wheelchair Tennis Central, sponsored by Deloitte.

Who’s the surest bet in men’s tennis today? Novak Djokovic at the majors? Rafael Nadal on clay? No one would argue against the reliability of either of those future Hall-of-Famers.

At the moment, though, even they can’t hold a candle in the dominance department to a 28-year-old Australian named Dylan Alcott. Next week at the US Open, Alcott will attempt to do something that even the game’s greatest champions struggle to imagine achieving. He’ll try to complete not one, but two, calendar-year Grand Slams, in the Quad Wheelchair singles and doubles events. The Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon: They’ve all fallen to this shot-making wizard and his arsenal of spins, loops, angles and volleys. The gung-ho Aussie seems to have a different swing for every occasion, and a different celebratory yelp for every winner.

“It would be an incredible achievement and honor,” Alcott says with his customary mix of fervor and humility. “I’ve certainly prepared well and I’m ready for the challenge.”

“Challenge” has always been the operative word with Alcott. He was born with a tumor on his spinal cord; doctors successfully removed it when he was a few weeks old, but the operation left him a paraplegic.

Alcott won Wimbledon's quad singles and doubles tournaments in their first year of existence... (Getty Images)

As Alcott tells the story, until he was 12 or 13, he didn’t mind being in a wheelchair. It was all he’d ever known, and it didn’t keep him from being with his friends. But that changed when adolescence hit and he found himself left out of the new cliques and romances that formed among his peers. Feeling “weird” about his disability for the first time, he fell into a depression.

Finally, after not being invited to yet another party, he got up the nerve to crash it. Once there, he discovered that the reason he hadn’t been invited wasn’t because his friends didn’t want him there; it was because they (mistakenly) believed he wouldn’t be able to get up and down the stairs in the house. From then on, Alcott says, he vowed not to let misunderstandings about his condition affect his life or his relationships with other people.

“I made a pact with myself to never, ever let my disability get in the way of what I wanted to do,” Alcott has said. “To embrace it in everything I did.”

What Alcott has done most, and best, is play sports. He was a member of the Australian wheelchair basketball teams that won gold at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and silver in 2012 in London. As a teenager, he had also been a highly ranked junior wheelchair tennis player, and in 2014 he returned to the sport. By the end of 2015, Alcott had won the quad singles at the Australian Open and US Open. (Quad athletes have a permanent physical disability and significant loss of function in at least three of their extremities.)

“It felt like quite a natural progression,” Alcott says of switching from basketball to tennis. “Taking away that team aspect from training was a big shift, because in tennis it really is just yourself that you need to rely on to motivate yourself. Now it’s the part I enjoy the most. Knowing I have a great level of personal control over the process and the outcome is something I really enjoy.”

Alcott would add Australian Open Quad Wheelchair titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. This year, when the event was added at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, he swept those as well. Alcott is 9-0 in Grand Slam singles finals, and this year he has won the men’s doubles quad event at the three majors, with three different partners.

...along with Roland Garros. (Getty Images)

With his upbeat determination, down-to-earth self-deprecation, and inspiring personal story, Alcott has found success away from the court as well. He’s in demand as a motivational speaker, and works as a radio and TV host in Australia. In 2017, he started the Dylan Alcott Foundation, which focuses on helping people with disabilities find “self-esteem through sport and study.”

Alcott laments the fact that, growing up, he rarely if ever saw a person with a disability in public life, “achieving.” Now he wants to be that person, and to help make disability less of a stigma, in the same way that he decided when he was a teenager that he wouldn’t let it stigmatize him. He hopes, first of all, that his success on court can raise the profile of wheelchair tennis, and para-sports in general.

“I love competing, I love engaging the crowd, and always providing the very best representation of the sport as possible,” says Alcott, who cites Aussie greats like John Newcombe, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Pat Rafter as tennis heroes, both for the way they played and the way they carried themselves. “I truly believe that a fan can enjoy and engage with our matches in every way that they might watching a Federer or a Rafa, for example. At the past two Australian Opens, the Quad Wheelchair singles final has been held in Rod Laver Arena to awesome crowds and television coverage.

“So many of us are full-time professionals and train in the same way as all professional players.”

Novak Djokovic is one of the full-time tennis professionals who has come to appreciate what Alcott and his colleagues do on court. At an exhibition in Melbourne two years ago, Djokovic climbed into a wheelchair to play a few points with Alcott and immediately found out how difficult it is to maneuver and swing a racquet at the same time. As strained to make the wheelchair move, Djokovic told Alcott that he had gained a whole new level of respect for what he does.

“I’ve said it before, these guys are heroes to me,” Djokovic said at this year’s Australian Open. “They make the game of tennis more beautiful and more unique because of what they do and how they do it.”

Djokovic experienced what Alcott and other wheelchair players must deal with on the court at the 2017 Australian Open. (Getty Images)

Djokovic is right: the wheelchair game offers something familiar and something different at the same time. There’s a wide variety of swings spins, and types of shots created, but the suspense involved in seeing a player trying to track down a ball in a wheelchair is the same as what you feel watching an able-bodied player sprint after a ball.

For Alcott, the sport is, above everything else, a way to showcase what a person in wheelchair can do, rather than what they can’t, and to raise everyone’s expectations—disabled and able-bodied people alike—about they can accomplish.

“We need to mainstream disability,” Alcott says in his motivational speeches, “to make it heaps more commonplace.”

Next week in New York he’ll do his part when he goes for a double Grand Slam. What better way to make people realize what wheelchair athletes can achieve than by doing something even the most famous tennis players can only dream about?

The US Open is more than just singles, doubles and juniors. The wheelchair and quad tournaments showcase some of the most dedicated players in the sport, with stories as incredible as their shotmaking.

To learn more about wheelchair tennis, head to Wheelchair Tennis Central, sponsored by Deloitte.

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