Physically exhausted and mentally drained, Dylan Alcott sat in front of the world’s tennis media for his final press conference.
It wasn’t the farewell he wanted or deserved, but it was a far cry from the way things had started for one of Australia’s great exponents on the court.
“The first round at my first Australian Open in 2014, January 23, legit, there were five people there — five,” he said, with a voice now instantly recognisable through years of dedication to building his profile, and in turn being a leading voice of disability awareness.
“My dad, mum, brother, couple of mates, and some people got lost and accidentally walked past. Legit, not exaggerating.
“Now … Rod Laver, Channel Nine held the news [for my match], it was the biggest show in town with Nick [Kyrgios] and Thanasi [Kokkinakis] and Ash [Barty] today.
“I’m on the opening billboard when you get here in Melbourne, bloody Australian of the Year, for God’s sake. What the hell is that? That’s ridiculous.”
It’s a phenomenon that is the product of his work off the court as much as his work on it.
A relentless force in front of the camera and on the airwaves, Alcott understands that the game isn’t everything. That results are nice, but the impact of his actions and the humanity of him and his fellow tennis stars is what matters most.
A humanity he feels he shares with the likes of Australian Open finalist Barty.
“She’s just the best human, first and foremost. Tennis can get stuffed,” he said.
“That is why I love her. The best human. It just so happens that she can play tennis.
The famous friends and billboards have now become the norm for the 15-time grand slam winner.
Thrown into the spotlight as a Paralympic medal-winning teenager in basketball, Alcott had become known as someone who wasn’t backward in coming forward.
He was that guy who was pictured crowd surfing in his wheelchair at Coachella. That guy who was lifted on to stage at Meredith Music Festival, effortlessly rolling out Wu-Tang Clan’s Protect Ya Neck in front of thousands of fans. That guy who became a mainstay on national radio and TV broadcasts.
That guy who became one of our most recognisable tennis champions.
That guy who is Australian of the Year.
“This just sums up how it’s changed. I hope he doesn’t mind this, but Andy Murray just messaged me: ‘I don’t know if I have articulated that well, but you’re an absolute rock star and inspiration. Thanks for everything you’ve done.’
“That kills me. Makes me want to cry. Special. You’re part of it. Like I don’t even care you’re in a wheelchair. They don’t give a shit. It’s special. It’s so nice, you know. It’s like that everywhere here. I never thought that would happen. It’s cool, really cool. It’s better than winning a tennis tournament.”
For someone who has often admitted to hating himself as a child, the emotion in Alcott’s voice as he speaks of being accepted is palpable.
It’s a feeling that it’s not about the tennis. That it was never about winning trophies or breaking records or making famous friends.
It was cause and effect.
And the effect has been overwhelmingly positive for the people that matter most.
“You don’t need me. I’m washed up. I’m done,” he said of his tennis career.
“I’m redundant. I’m officially a retired washed-up proper loser, and I love that. I am redundant, don’t need me, I’m done, time for someone else to take the reins. And it’s hard to take the reins when everybody is talking about one person.
As for what that next part is, there’s talk of movies, of writing scripts, of living a more normal life.
And there’s the talk that has made Alcott a media star. The larrikinism and self-deprecation that has helped endear him to the nation, well outside his sporting prowess.
“Yeah, maybe the long jump,” he laughs.
“Life is about opportunity. If we have no expectations of what people with disability can do, we’re not going to give them opportunities. People backed me and gave me an opportunity and that’s why we did it.”