Wheelchair tennis great Dylan Alcott likes to say he has seven jobs, although the release of his autobiography means bestselling author may soon qualify as No 8. Priority-wise, the dual-sport Paralympics gold medallist still considers himself a tennis player first – but with a caveat.
“I would be wasting my life if I won 20 grand slams and that’s all I did,” says Alcott, who owns six in singles – including this year’s Australian and US Opens – and one in doubles and will reassess his competitive future after the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, having debuted as a basketballer in Beijing in 2008.
“I love the ability to help people, so the work I do with my company, Get Skilled Access, and the work that I do at my foundation but also the work that I do in the media, which normalises disability, is really important to me as well, so it’s hard to split them.
“I don’t get out of bed every day to play to win a tennis tournament, I honestly don’t. I do it because I love it, but it also provides me with a platform to do what I really want: which is to continue to change the perceptions around disability.”
His book, Able, is the latest vehicle, with its key message being the importance of celebrating and embracing difference. Left a paraplegic after being born with a tumour gripping his spinal cord, Alcott was once the tubby, embarrassed kid on the couch; he is now a TV and radio host, motivational speaker, businessman and advocate who lunched with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, after interviewing Prince Harry at the recent Invictus Games.
It was not even Alcott’s first flirtation with royalty; the 27-year-old met the famous pair he chummily addressed as Meghan and Kate after taking part in the inaugural quad wheelchair exhibition at Wimbledon in July. The sequel came as the Sussexes mingled with various politicians, celebrities and sports stars in Sydney last month.
“I said ‘hello, Duchess, my name’s Dylan, we’ve actually met before’, and she goes ‘yeah, I remember, at Wimbledon, outside the locker-room with your doubles partner’,” Alcott recalls. “I was like ‘shit, yeah, she remembers me!’. So I was pretty happy with that.”
Alcott is similarly thrilled with so much in what he describes as a “super-busy” existence. His father Martin writes him an annual card noting that the year just gone will be a hard one to top. And yet his son seems to find a way. “It’s been unbelievable,” he says. “I’m a sucker for an opportunity, I love doing all kinds of different things, so when these opportunities keep coming up I just keep taking them. I’m very lucky and I’m absolutely loving my life at the moment.”
Tennis-wise, two events in the past 12 months are hard to separate: the quads’ long-awaited All England Club invitation, which ended six years of personal lobbying and has led to fully-integrated singles and doubles status in 2019; and the Australian Open.
Having secretly spent time in hospital in the lead-up to the 2018 edition of Australia’s grand slam with the bacterial infection, cellulitis, Alcott was feeling the pressure of his increased profile as the face of a major bank’s advertising campaign en route to his fourth triumph at Melbourne Park.
“I went from ‘you might have known my name’ to ‘you probably couldn’t really get away from me’ during the Open,” he laughs. “And I think if I’d choked it up and lost during that final it would have been pretty devastating.
“But, in saying that, playing at Wimbledon meant so much to me, just to be there and to be included. It was still one of the coolest things I’ve got to do. As a tennis fan, first and foremost, everyone loves Wimbledon, so be able to pull the whites on, and hang out there and get to play, it was unbelievable.”
With Ash Barty, Alex De Minaur and John Millman, Alcott was one of four finalists for Tennis Australia’s highest individual award, the Newcombe medal. The trailblazing 2016 winner lost out to Barty and De Minaur this time, but is proud that the line between athletes with a disability and those without is becoming more blurred every year.
He is clear, though, about the need to ease up on his relentless personal schedule occasionally, while no longer reluctant to admit that the way he manages to fit everything in is “because I work my arse off”. Not just on tennis, clearly, and Alcott describes his 6-1, 6-3 drubbing from American David Wagner in last year’s US Open final as the wake-up call he needed. By doing so much else, he was not devoting enough time to training. But no longer. On the day of this interview, he has just finished 90 minutes of boxing and then two hours on the court.
Next stop was a recording session to finish the audio version of his memoir, but the author is yet to press pause. The title is the philosophy the dauntless Alcott lives by, and “able” the message he remains determined to spread.
Dylan Alcott’s memoir, Able, is published by ABC Books and in stores now.