MELBOURNE, Australia — The lineup at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday at the Australian Open offered a who’s who of the host country’s biggest tennis stars.
The doubles pair of Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis won their semifinal match in the afternoon, setting up an all-Australian final in men’s doubles. The top-ranked Ashleigh Barty won her semifinal in the first match of the evening session, becoming the first Australian woman to reach the singles final at this tournament since 1980.
But for Barty, the achievements in those matches paled to those of the man who played just before her in the final match of his career: Dylan Alcott, a quad wheelchair tennis player.
“Honestly, Dylan, for me, is at the forefront of that,” Barty said in her on-court interview. “He’s inspired a nation. He’s inspired the whole globe.”
Alcott, 31, announced in November that this Australian Open would be his final tournament, drawing a finish line for a dominant career in which he won the quad singles competition at 15 of the 19 Grand Slam tournaments in which he played. Alcott also won Paralympic gold in Tokyo in 2021, making him the first man to achieve the Golden Slam in quad singles, winning all four majors and the Olympics.
Alcott lost, 7-5, 6-0, to second-seeded Sam Schroder in the final on Thursday, to the disappointment of the thousands who had come to watch him — including many in T-shirts sold at the tournament that list his Grand Slam triumphs on the back. Alcott’s athletic ability has paralleled his resonance in Australia, where he has become a cultural presence. On Tuesday, he was named Australian of the year in a ceremony in Canberra, Australia’s capital.
Though uncertain of his chances at the ceremony, Alcott traveled between his semifinal and final matches for a chance to receive the award from Scott Morrison, the country’s prime minister.
In his acceptance speech in Canberra, Alcott, who was born with lipomeningocele, a dysraphic condition of the spine, showed the wit and directness for which he is known. “I thought I had no chance, and then I got here and I saw this really good-looking ramp, and I thought: I might have a chance here,” Alcott said in his ice-breaking remarks before shifting to darker reflections.
Through sports, Alcott found a platform to spread his message. He first won Paralympic gold in basketball in 2008 when he was 17, later switching to tennis. But the attention was far from immediate. “Legit, there was five people there,” Alcott said of his first Australian Open match, in 2014. “Five. My dad, mom, brother, couple of mates, and some people who got lost and accidentally walked past.”
When Alcott did interviews and made appearances, his charisma won him further exposure, both as a radio and television personality and as a spokesman for brands like ANZ bank. “The reason I’ve been able to cut through is because of who I am and what I say and what we stand for as a community,” he said. “Luckily I just know how to string two words together. And also I’ve got a get-stuff-done attitude where I just want to get it done.”
Alcott expressed frustration that other successful athletes with impairments have had nowhere near his resonance, but he hoped that his could pave a path.
“Tennis players have won Grand Slams and gold medals in wheelchairs before, but haven’t had that cut through,” Alcott said. “It’s got nothing really to do about me playing tennis, to be honest. It’s about what I say, I guess who I am, mostly being fully proud of who I am, authentically me and challenging the status quo.”
The Australian Open has embraced Alcott, making him prominent in its advertising campaigns. His face smiles opposite Barty’s on a mural near the tournament’s south entrance. Wheelchair tennis, particularly the quad division, has never gotten anything close to the attention that Alcott has attracted. But he expressed optimism that the players who now will be able to win Grand Slam event titles in his absence — including Schroder and his Dutch compatriot Niels Vink — will be able to sustain interest.
“They’re ready to go,” Alcott said. “I’m redundant. I’m officially a retired, washed-up proper loser, and I love that.”
Schroder said the thousands inside Rod Laver Arena for Alcott’s farewell were “by far the most that have come to watch” one of his matches. “It’s a great atmosphere,” he said. “The Australians are very, of course, very proud of Dylan, and they showed that out on court, which is great. But they’d also cheer when I make points, you know. It was just an amazing energy on court today and in the stands, which really helped me get through it as well.”
Alcott said he wished he had taken more chances to appreciate the atmosphere himself, particularly once he knew he was “rinsed” and “cooked” after his exhausting week. “I was really trying to be within myself, but that was unbelievable,” he said. “The crowd was so good, so loud.”
“Scarily, I’m used to that now,” Alcott added. “Can you believe that? From a guy that had five people watching him to that being normal. That’s just ridiculous to think. I will never take it for granted, mate.”