After securing a golden slam at Flushing Meadows last year, Dylan Alcott plans to hang up his tennis racquet at the Australian Open. That doesn’t mean he’ll be stepping out of the spotlight. By Ben Rothenberg.
Dylan Alcott on changing the narrative and his next move
Coming into the city from Melbourne Airport for the year’s opening grand slam tennis tournament, the first sign of the Australian Open is a remarkable one.
On a banner stretching across an overpass above the Tullamarine Freeway is the face of the pride of the Australian Open. But it’s not nine-time men’s singles champion Novak Djokovic, whose absence from all promotional images for the tournament has been conspicuous amid vaccination controversy and a visa entry fiasco.
Rather, the first face greeting international and interstate visitors to the Australian Open is Dylan Alcott, who competes in a division of the sport almost completely overlooked everywhere else tennis is played. Alcott is a dominant force in quad wheelchair tennis – the smallest division of grand slam tennis – which for most of his career consisted of draws of only four players. But Alcott’s undeniably luminous presence has spotlit the event in his native Melbourne like nowhere else, earning slots for the finals of his draw on the marquee Rod Laver Arena, and a media ubiquity on television, radio and in advertisements rarely afforded to people with disability.
At just 31, Alcott is calling time on professional tennis at this year’s Australian Open. He is going out on an impossible high from a 2021 season that saw him rebound from the emotional lows of the pandemic, which kept him on tour a year longer than originally planned.
Already looking at “the finish line” of his career, Alcott was “gutted” by the postponement of the 2020 Paralympics. The US Open’s initial decision not to hold wheelchair events in 2020 as part of a downsizing of the event further worsened Alcott’s outlook. But after losing the reinstated US Open final to Sam Schröder, Alcott regained motivation and reeled off the next five grand slam titles and the gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, becoming the first man in able-bodied or wheelchair tennis to win a so-called “golden slam” in singles.
“When I was lucky enough to finish the golden slam, I just knew I couldn’t retire there at the US Open,” Alcott tells The Saturday Paper. “I love the US Open, but it’s not my home, you know? My home is the Aussie Open. But yeah, mate, I just knew straight away that I was done.”
Though Alcott’s tennis is dominant – he’s won 15 of the 19 grand slam singles events he’s entered – winning seems almost incidental to his crossover appeal. At last year’s US Open, the biggest cheers for Alcott came well after his win: along with the other winners of a grand slam in wheelchair tennis last year – women’s singles champion Diede de Groot and the doubles team of Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett – Alcott was introduced to the crowd in the able-bodied men’s singles final between Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.
Alcott was ready for the moment: he smuggled a beer into Arthur Ashe Stadium, and when the camera was on him he poured it into his trophy and chugged, drawing some of the day’s loudest applause from the star-studded crowd.
“Both Novak and Medvedev had a giggle,” Alcott recalls, beaming. “Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper were in front of me and they both just put their thumbs up and nodded. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I nailed that moment.’ ”
Showing a lust for life is purposeful for Alcott, who has worked to change perceptions of people with disability.
“The No. 1 hardest thing I ever had growing up was when I turned on the TV, radio and [read] newspapers – anywhere – I never saw anybody like me,” he says. “And when I did, it was a road safety ad where someone drink-drives, has a car accident, and the next scene is someone who looks like me, in tears, because their life is over. That was the only representation we ever had. And I was like, that’s not my life, you know? But I believed that was my life. So I didn’t really talk about it, but I kind of made it my mission to change that.”
Alcott said he “first and foremost cannot wait to have some guilt-free beers” upon retirement, but his longer-term ambitions include existing projects – such as his consulting firm, Get Skilled Access, which does corporate and government disability inclusion training, or his music festival, Ability Fest, which focuses on accessibility – and also new ventures.
Perhaps fuelled by his brushes with movie stars, Alcott is particularly keen to try acting.
“I’ve already won the golden slam, so let’s try to win an Oscar next – what do you reckon? Whether it’s in acting, whether it’s in the corporate world, whether that is in politics down the track, whatever it is,” Alcott says.
“I’m always open to ideas, but I’m also going to enjoy it and enjoy my life and keep doing what I’m doing,” he adds. “I can’t say I’m going to start enjoying my life, because that’d be lying – I’m always enjoying my life – but mate, I’m really excited about the next chapter, for sure.”
Alcott’s wish for visibility extends far beyond himself. What might come off as a “look-at-me” personality at times is always part of a larger “look-at-us” appeal he’s making on behalf of people with disability in all walks of life.
“Not just in sport: I want more representation of people with disability in boardrooms, in classrooms, in parliaments, in bars, in nightclubs, on airplanes, everywhere,” Alcott says. “And that’s why I’ll keep trying to change perceptions by showing people. The best way to do it is show it through lived experience and to leverage what you’ve got to get that opportunity. When you’ve got that opportunity to play on Rod Laver [Arena] for the first time, you fucking dominate it and then they can’t not put you on TV. They can’t not use you.”
Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director and Tennis Australia chief executive, has showcased Alcott with increasing frequency for years, quickly grasping his appeal beyond an ability to swing a racquet.
“He has a magnificent ability to engage with people,” Tiley says of Alcott. “So his star potential is in his athleticism, but also in his attitude.”
Alcott said his attitude included an insistence on equality upon his arrival into tennis, where he sensed the power of being showcased alongside able-bodied stars. That demand for belonging, Alcott believes, earned him immediate respect from Tiley and others at Tennis Australia.
“When I came from basketball to tennis, I said I’m only doing this if you treat me like Ash Barty, like Sam Stosur, like Lleyton Hewitt, like Pat Rafter – like I’m a professional tennis player, first and foremost, who just happens to have a disability,” he says. “And [Tennis Australia] said yes. Did we think it was going to explode into the juggernaut that we’ve done together? Of course not. I’m forever grateful for the way that they’ve treated and respected me and backed me. And the reason that they’re putting us front and centre on Rod Laver Arena in the prime time is not just for the warm, fuzzy feeling; it’s because it’s a good business decision for them as well.”
The next chapter for wheelchair tennis without Alcott could be a challenging one. Perhaps never before has one star player carried so much of the interest in a competition, but Alcott is also keen to clear a path for others after sweeping up so many of the biggest titles during his career.
“I feel like I’ve done everything I can in tennis,” he says. “It’s time for some other people to get the opportunities I’ve gotten in sport. For so many generations of wheelchair tennis players before me, they didn’t get the recognition they deserve. Even the current tennis players don’t. But I do, and I’m so lucky and grateful for that.”
Joking about singer John Farnham’s endless retirement tours, Alcott promised this Australian Open would be his last, a declaration he made with little melancholy.
“Mate, I’m going to fucking enjoy it,” he says. “I’m going to love it. And to think that they’re all coming to say goodbye will be pretty special, and I’m going to do my best to put on a show – like I do every time.
“I’m bloody excited, to be honest,” he adds. “I haven’t been hit with any sadness or anything yet, I’m just really excited about going out and really enjoying the moment. I am obviously just the luckiest bloke in the whole bloody world, to not only live the life that I live, but have the career that I lived.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "Alcott’s prime time".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.