The Most Famous Man At The Australian Open Is Not Who You Think
MELBOURNE, Australia — It can take a long time for Dylan Alcott, a paraplegic 28-year-old from a nearby suburb, to maneuver his wheelchair from one place to another around the Australian Open.
He’s not slow; he’s just popular.
“People used to stare at me when I was growing up because I was in a wheelchair, and I hated it,” Alcott said. “Now they’re staring at me because they know me. How amazing is that? It’s ‘Oh, that’s Dylan!’ Not, ‘Oh, there’s a guy in a wheelchair.’”
After first gaining recognition for winning a 2008 Paralympic gold medal in wheelchair basketball at 17, Alcott has come to dominate the quad division of wheelchair tennis, winning seven Grand Slam singles titles, including five at the Australian Open. He won his fifth in a row here on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena, which seats 15,000.
Quad tennis is a small and obscure world, often featuring only four players at major tournaments. But Alcott’s visibility extends far beyond the reach of a tennis stadium. He is the face of ANZ, a bank that is one of the Open’s major sponsors, and appears in advertisements around the grounds and on television. Alcott also served as a courtside analyst for Nine, the Australian network that broadcasts the tournament. During the rest of the year, he works as a radio host for national music stations.
When the broadcaster Gerard Whateley introduced Alcott at a meet-and-greet event on Monday, he made it clear Alcott needed no introduction: “You, sir, are inescapable!”
Being seen and heard as much as possible is a mission in itself for Alcott.
“When I was a kid and I was getting bullied at school and I was really upset, I’d say, ‘I don’t know anyone like me, I don’t see anyone like me on the TV or on the radio or the newspaper, and that sucks! That’s not fair,’” he said.
Alcott said he did not grasp the power of his celebrity until his commercials began to air last year.
“We got videos of a little kid in a wheelchair, and every time the ad comes on, he rolls over to the TV and hugs it, because he saw someone like him on TV,” Alcott said. “We get hundreds like that, and that’s so cool.”
The attention can be exhausting, especially in the midst of competing in a Grand Slam event. Everywhere he goes around Melbourne, people stop, turn and smile in recognition. Though it can eat up hours of his day, Alcott swerves toward those people, rather than away from them, introducing himself and offering to take a photograph.
Alcott also has savored the acceptance of his fellow athletes with whom he has shared the locker room, especially the Australian ones who he sees year-round at Melbourne Park. Last Saturday, Alcott chatted with the 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer at the net when their sessions overlapped on a practice court.
“It’s like you’re just one of them,” Alcott said. “They treat me so well, it’s amazing. It’s cool, and I don’t think any other wheelchair athletes have that. They say, ‘Hi,’ and it’s like they don’t even know you’re in a wheelchair.”
They do notice Alcott’s popularity. Even Stefanos Tsitsipas, who became the Open’s breakthrough star when he beat Federer in the fourth round, deferred to Alcott’s celebrity.
“I introduced myself to Tsitsipas,” Alcott said, “and he said, ‘Mate, you’re the most famous guy here, of course I know who you are!’ I’ll take that. That’s surreal.”
Kris Dent, an executive with the International Tennis Federation, said Alcott’s appeal transcended sports.
“You can't fail to notice that when you come to Australia,” Dent said. “He's become much more than just an athlete. It's a phenomenal story that he has.”
The top-ranked man in able-bodied tennis, Novak Djokovic, has tried his skills in a wheelchair across the net from Alcott, which he said made him appreciate the challenge and the craft of the discipline.
“Dylan deserves the popularity,” Djokovic said. “He’s a very great guy, very charismatic. I’ve said it before, these guys are heroes to me, they really are. They make the game of tennis more beautiful and more unique because of what they do and how they do it.”
After winning Paralympic gold medals in singles and doubles in 2016, Alcott was presented Tennis Australia’s Newcombe Medal, which goes annually to the country’s top player. Alcott said winning an award in a general category rather than one designated for disabled athletes “felt like breaking through.”
Alcott was born with lipomeningocele, which caused a large tumor against his spinal cord. He underwent his first of many surgeries at five weeks old. Health struggles continued throughout his childhood, with his ability to use his extremities worsening at times, both gradually and suddenly.
In 2012, an inebriated acquaintance tried to pick up his chair and dumped him onto the floor, which was covered in broken glass; Alcott severed an artery in his hand in the fall, damaging his ability to use his right hand fully, which is one of the reasons he competes in the quad division. That spelled the end of his wheelchair basketball career and led him to focus on tennis, which he had started playing around age 9 or 10.
“The biggest thing is being really proud of my disability, which is kind of different,” Alcott said. “Most people don’t want to talk about it. I always say, ‘Nah, let’s talk about it, openly and all the time.’ People buy into that.”
Though frank and candid about his challenges, Alcott also has tried to share the fullness of his life.
“People that have a car accident think their life is over, because road safety ads say, ‘If you drink and drive and end up in a wheelchair, your life’s over,’ as a deterrence,” Alcott said. “People look at me and think it’s the same.”
That’s why in his autobiography, “Able,” a best seller published last fall, he said, “I talk about the first time I had sex, when I travel, everything. To be given the platform to do that, that’s so cool.”
The platform for Alcott’s tennis also is growing. His second round-robin match, a 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5 victory over David Wagner, was broadcast live on national television. In his on-court interview, Alcott seemed more ecstatic about the viewership than the victory, hoping that disabled people around Australia had watched and drawn inspiration. (By contrast, he won the United States Open in September on an indoor practice facility rather than a main stadium because of rain.)
Alcott, a hip-hop fan who has rapped on stage with Ghostface Killah, started his own music festival, Ability Fest, which catered to the needs of disabled people often left out of such events. The event featured interpreters for the deaf and elevated platforms for seated viewers.
Alcott also founded Get Skilled Access, a consulting group that works to improve how governments and corporations interact with disabled people. His foundation finances opportunities for disabled people because, he noted, he needs $8,000 for a wheelchair while his brother needed only $100 pair of shoes to play Australian Rules Football.
“It might not be Paralympics; it might be a cello, it might be a scholarship to go to university and become a lawyer,” Alcott said. “Why don’t we see people with disabilities in boardroom, in the mainstream? It’s because they haven’t been given the opportunities, and we want to provide that.”
Alcott had a 28-3 record last year on quad tennis circuit, which is for players with at least three extremities affected by a permanent physical disability. He hopes he, too, can grow into something bigger and more powerful than just a tennis player.
“I could win 20 Grand Slams and I’d be happy,” he said, “but I’d regret not doing what I love the most, which is changing perceptions of disability, which broadcasting helps.”
Alcott said he would like to move to New York or London to reach a wider audience.
“Why couldn’t a guy in a wheelchair be the next Jimmy Fallon, or whatever it is?” he said.
As he started to expand on his vision for success in America, Alcott stopped and gestured to something much closer: a girl standing a few meters away, staring at him with a huge smile and tears in her eyes.
“Hello! I’m Dylan,” he said. “How are you, what’s your name? Jessica, what’s going on? Want to get a photo?”
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