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
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