By Ross Shinberg
Entering the 2022 Australian Open this January, Dylan Alcott knew the tournament would be his last. In November, the 31-year-old wheelchair tennis player announced he would retire after the event, which is one of the four most significant tournaments on the tennis calendar.
Alcott, the No. 1 seed and defending champion of the wheelchair competition, battled his way into the championship match but ultimately finished as the runner-up. While it wasn’t the finish he wanted, his lasting impact is immeasurable.
“He’s an icon, for all intents and purposes, whether it’s for the country of Australia or for wheelchair tennis as a whole,” said Danny Bennett, managing editor for LobAndSmash.com.
Alcott is Australia’s most decorated tennis champion since the days of Rod Laver and Margaret Court in the 1960s. He is a 15-time wheelchair singles champion and an eight-time wheelchair doubles champion. He also won the “Golden Slam” last year, which encompasses winning all four major tournaments and the Olympic gold medal in the same season.
“Alcott is just always a pleasure to watch because of how much excitement and positive energy he brings to the court,” said Damian Kust, a freelance tennis journalist. “That’s why he’s a legend, even though he’s got amazing results as well.”
Alcott played his final match in Australia’s largest tennis stadium, Rod Laver Arena. His farewell speech brought tears to many of the thousands of fans attending.
“To the Australian Open, I love you so much,” Alcott said during his speech. “Thanks so much to Jayne (Hrdlicka, chair of the Tennis Australia Board) and Craig (Tiley, Australian Open Tournament director) and everybody, thank you so much for changing my life but also backing someone who’s disabled to be the front of your brand.”
“My biggest thanks today is to you, everybody watching today, are the hero of the wide world of sports. I’m really the luckiest guy in the world, and I didn’t need to win today to realize that,” Alcott said.
As Alcott steps out of the spotlight, a new hero in Australia takes his place. With the weight of an entire country on her shoulders, 25-year-old Ashleigh Barty became the first Australian man or woman to win singles at the Australian Open since 1978.
Barty steamrolled her way through the bracket, becoming the first player to win the tournament without dropping a set since Serena Williams in 2017.
Underlying her win was the immense pressure Barty faced to succeed at this tournament. In previous editions as a top contender, Barty failed to live up to her hype.
“Some players really benefit from the home crowd. And to an extent, she does,” Kust said. “But I think it was putting her under a lot of pressure. The losses she had two years ago and one year ago in Australia, I think in both she was very tense.”
In addition to this criticism, many in the tennis community resented her status as world No. 1 because she did not play for 10 months due to strict COVID-19 related travel restrictions placed on Australians. To Bennett, this may have provided additional motivation for Barty.
“It was almost like her coming-out party, which is really strange because she’s been No. 1 for such a long time, ” Bennett said. “It was like a coming out party for her in the sense of ‘All right, this is going to be my year. Watch and see what I do.’”
In her career, Barty has won prestigious tournaments such as Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the year-end WTA Tour Finals. But this Australian Open victory may be the tipping point for her legacy.
“These other slams, even though in the grand scheme of things in tennis terms, they mean the same. But for Australians, they actually don’t,” Kust said. “She’s certainly so enjoyed in Australia, so much more than she was before.”
Ross Shinberg is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter @RossShinberg.