“We’re excited to get back to Paris,” says Alfie Hewett, and there’s a good reason why: he and his partner Gordon Reid are looking for their 10th consecutive grand slam title at Roland Garros this week. “I’m feeling confident, he’s feeling confident and, obviously, we’re on a bit of a roll,” he says with a grin.
Speak to the pre-eminent pairing in men’s wheelchair tennis, however, and it’s clear that the reasons for enthusiasm go deeper than the prospect of more competitive success. Barely nine months ago, the normally photogenic duo were sitting pale-faced and drawn in the shadows of Tokyo’s Ariake Tennis Park having lost out on their dream of a Paralympic gold medal. Worse than that, it looked to be the last time they would ever play with each other, with Hewett set to be disqualified from the sport due to a reclassification of his disability.
That verdict, which appeared arbitrary and had certainly been drawn out, took its toll on Hewett. “It was a massive cloud that had been looming over my head for a few years and I probably didn’t appreciate how difficult it really was,” he says. “I just focused on one event at a time, tried to forget about it and continue on, hoping that in the long run my decision would get reversed. It was completely out of my power. So that brought a lot of emotion and a lot of people saw that at the Paralympics.”
Last winter, however, Hewett’s declassification was overturned on appeal and in January the pair got back to business, winning the 14th major of their partnership at the Australian Open. Reid says admiration for his partner had only grown as he watched him work through his ordeal. “It’s been very impressive the way he’s dealt with it,” Reid says. “His whole career and livelihood had essentially been taken away from him. We’ve also put a lot of hours in together to try and become the best wheelchair tennis team in the world. We didn’t want that to be taken away from us either.”
Now the pair’s appetite for competition has been renewed. “I’m certainly hungry,” says Hewett. “The new year is a fresh start.” Reid, 30, is also champing at the bit having had to nurse a wrist injury since the Australian Open. “I’m glad to be back now and if he’s talking about being hungry, then I’m absolutely starving over here,” he says.
The duo head to Paris with a personal target and will be part of a French Open that is putting wheelchair tennis in the spotlight this year. An expanded competition will see more players take to court, more fixtures on the showpiece Philippe Chatrier court and a schedule that is synchronised with the non-disabled championships. For Reid, this is indicative of a broader trend amongst grand slams, and proves a point about the growth of their sport.
“I think the people in charge are starting to appreciate that we actually bring something positive to the tournament,” Reid says. “It’s not a charity thing, it’s not a feel sorry for the guys in the wheelchairs thing. Crowds are coming, they’re watching, they’re enjoying it.”
For Hewett, wheelchair doubles is one of the most exciting forms of tennis to watch and spectators are getting on board with that. “They truly appreciate the skillset that’s required to be able to play the sport at the level we’re doing it,” he says, pointing – for example – to the upper body strength needed not only to strike the ball from a sitting position but then manoeuvre to get ready for the next return. “In the last five years the standard has rapidly increased,” he goes on. “Maybe that’s because of the emphasis the grand slams have put on exposing the players and putting them on big courts. It’s giving them incentive to train harder and become better players.”
There is still much to push for, first and foremost a path towards greater equality that – Reid and Hewett hope – will eventually result in wheelchair tennis tournaments beyond the slams incorporated under the WTA/ATP umbrella. There’s also the perennial challenge of greater grassroots involvement too. “One thing that’s really important”, Reid says, “is to improve the accessibility to clubs and equipment so that people from different backgrounds and abilities can enjoy the sport and reap the benefits we had.”
Hewett and Reid are charismatic ambassadors for their sport, two men who want to leave a legacy. But first and foremost they are fiercely competitive athletes: more titles – and another bid for Paralympic gold – remain front and centre in their thoughts. “As a team we’ve always discussed the goals that we’ve had together, in terms of titles and the world rankings,” Reid says. “Really we’ve ticked off the majority of them now, apart from that Paralympic gold medal. That’s the big one that’s still remaining to be achieved, that’s the unfinished business.”
Reid and Hewett are ambassadors for Vodafone and the LTA’s Play Your Way to Wimbledon initiative. For more information visit: https://www.lta.org.uk/