Cham­pion: Nor­folk’s own Wim­ble­don win­ner, Al­fie Hewett

World num­ber one, mul­ti­ple grand slam win­ner, Par­a­lympic medal­list – it’s hard to be­lieve it’s lit­tle more than a decade since Al­fie Hewett first tried wheel­chair ten­nis

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rachel Buller

Al­fie Hewett was nine years old when he prop­erly picked up a ten­nis racket for the first time. Just two years be­fore, he had been di­ag­nosed with a con­di­tion which left him wheel­chair bound and bat­tling se­ri­ous health is­sues. But the young­ster from Cantley, near Acle, wasn’t about to give up on his love of sport and a ten­nis taster ses­sion left him hooked.

Now, at the age of 20, Al­fie has trav­elled the world, topped the world rank­ings and has count­less ti­tles and medals to his name.

And his am­bi­tions do not end there.

“I don’t see my med­i­cal con­di­tion be­ing a hin­drance to get­ting into sport, let alone mak­ing it to the top of one,” he says. “Look­ing at the abil­ity I have rather than the dis­abil­ity is an ap­proach I have grown into. It has helped me on the ten­nis court to max­imise my strengths rather than fo­cus­ing on the neg­a­tives.”

It was dur­ing a dis­abil­ity sports taster event at Stoke Man­dev­ille in Buck­ing­hamshire that he was first in­tro­duced to wheel­chair ten­nis.

“Wheel­chair ten­nis was one that I played and en­joyed the most so I made sure that when I came back to Nor­folk I could carry on play­ing.”

He be­gan at­tend­ing weekly group ses­sions at the East Anglian Ten­nis and Squash Club, where his sib­lings and other play­ers with dis­abil­i­ties could play what­ever the weather.

“I was like any beginner pick­ing up a racket for the first time. I gave it a swing and the ma­jor­ity of the time missed,” he laughs. “But I loved the en­joy­ment and the chal­lenge of im­prov­ing, that’s what kept me play­ing. It wasn’t un­til af­ter a few years that I re­alised there were op­por­tu­ni­ties for me to play ten­nis as a ca­reer.”

This sum­mer, Al­fie and dou­bles part­ner Gor­don Reid, won their third con­sec­u­tive wheel­chair dou­bles ti­tle at Wim­ble­don, adding to their US Open dou­bles ti­tle. He also won his first sin­gles grand slam ti­tle last year at the French Open at Roland Gar­ros and was a dou­ble sil­ver medal­ist at the Rio Par­a­lympics in 2016.

“Win­ning the Par­a­lympic medals is some­thing still to this day I can’t quite be­lieve. I don’t think at the time I re­ally un­der­stood how ex­tra­or­di­nary it was, to go to my first ever games and reach both fi­nals at such a young age. I of­ten look back and rem­i­nisce and it gives me goose bumps.”

Al­fie, who at­tended Acle High School and City Col­lege Nor­wich, says the sup­port of his fam­ily has been in­stru­men­tal in his suc­cess – in par­tic­u­lar his grand­dad.

“Trav­el­ling on the road, tak­ing me to train­ing, the sup­port he has given me de­spite his own per­sonal health is­sues has in­spired me to never give up, no mat­ter how hard things seem to get.”

He says that while in Nor­folk there has been a rise in par­tic­i­pa­tion in dis­abil­ity sport with more ju­niors now play­ing wheel­chair ten­nis, rais­ing aware­ness is es­sen­tial.

“I do be­lieve the op­por­tu­ni­ties and path­ways are out there for peo­ple to get in­volved, but the aware­ness could still be bet­ter. Be­ing able to play at Wim­ble­don and show­case it on tele­vi­sion all helps grow that aware­ness and hope­fully re­sults in more young kids, or any­one with a dis­abil­ity get­ting in­volved with sport.”

Al­fie was born with a con­gen­i­tal heart de­fect, un­der­go­ing open heart surgery as a baby, and has been told he will likely face fur­ther surgery in the fu­ture. Then, aged seven, he was di­ag­nosed with Perthes dis­ease, which causes soft­en­ing of the hip bone. For the first five years af­ter his di­ag­no­sis he was con­fined to a wheel­chair, be­fore grad­u­ally be­ing able to walk for short pe­ri­ods us­ing his crutches. The con­di­tion also leaves Al­fie fac­ing ex­treme fa­tigue and leg and back spasms.

Wheel­chair ten­nis takes enor­mous fit­ness, and says Al­fie, the phys­i­cal side of the game has got more and more im­por­tant in re­cent years.

“Play­ers are be­com­ing stronger, the ball is com­ing through quicker so hav­ing strength and en­durance is key to suc­cess. Off court strength and con­di­tion­ing has in­creased and I spend most of my time when I’m play­ing at tour­na­ments or in a train­ing pe­riod in the gym. Keep­ing my shoul­ders healthy is the big­gest chal­lenge, since you are mov­ing a chair as well as play­ing ten­nis, all with your arms. Three hours on court can re­ally take it out of me, so that’s why fit­ness and con­di­tion­ing is re­ally im­por­tant.”

As well as phys­i­cal fit­ness, wheel­chair ten­nis also re­quires state of the art equip­ment to en­sure op­ti­mum per­for­mance, with tech­nol­ogy con­stantly evolv­ing and de­vel­op­ing.

“The wheel­chair I have is cus­tom made to fit the shape of my body so that I get the best out of the chair. I have core and lower body func­tion so I want to max­imise that by hav­ing a lower back rest to give me more range of move­ment. I also have the chair mea­sured inch per­fect to my hips to help turn the chair and make me quicker round the court,” he says. “The chair is made out of alu­minium and is su­per light as the lighter the chair the eas­ier to push round the court. Wheels are cam­bered for quick turns on the spot and a third wheel at the back pro­vides bal­ance. There has been a mas­sive in­crease in re­search and wheels for dif­fer­ent sur­faces is an area that a lot of man­u­fac­tur­ers are look­ing into right now.”

His ca­reer takes him across the globe and he is cur­rently in Amer­ica pre­par­ing for the US Open, but he says he tries to spend as much time in Nor­folk as pos­si­ble – espe­cially to see his beloved Nor­wich City.

“This year I have tried to be home more, mak­ing the most of my time with fam­ily and friends, since it can be quite a lonely place when trav­el­ling on tour half the year. I love go­ing to the foot­ball, the movies, play­ing games like bowl­ing, go­ing to the ar­cades and en­joy evenings out, so­cial­is­ing hav­ing a laugh. One of my favourite places to go when the sun is shin­ing is Wells beach,” he says.

“It’s im­por­tant to take my­self away from ten­nis and have that down­time, it makes me come back re­freshed and hun­grier for more. There is a lot I’ve yet to achieve,” he says. “I want to win a gold medal sin­gles and dou­bles ti­tle at the next Par­a­lympics, win all the slams pos­si­ble and just be the best per­son on and off the court I can be.”

“I want to win... all the slams pos­si­ble and just be the best per­son on and off the court I can be”

ABOVE:Al­fie Hewett play­ing at this year’s Wim­ble­don, where he and part­ner Gor­don Reid won their third con­sec­u­tive men’s wheel­chair dou­bles ti­tle.

Al­fie Hewett cel­e­brates win­ning the men’s fi­nal at The NEC Wheel­chair Ten­nis Mas­ters at Lough­bor­ough Univer­sity last year

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