Alfie Hewett is enjoying being the man to be shot at in wheelchair tennis as he prepares to bid for a fourth French Open title.
The retirement at the beginning of the year of Hewett’s big rival Shingo Kunieda after one of the great tennis careers left the Norfolk player as world number one.
Hewett first won the French Open as a teenager and has been used to being the relative new kid on the block but now he finds a host of younger players challenging him.
Top of that pile is Kunieda’s Japanese compatriot, 17-year-old Tokito Oda, who was beaten by Hewett in the Australian Open final in January.
Hewett told the PA news agency: “It is strange. I’m 25 so I don’t see myself as being the experienced one when you have the likes of Gordy (doubles partner Gordon Reid) and some of the others who are five to 10 years older than me.
“But I guess this is my eighth year on tour so I do have experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in some big moments and I thought the Australian Open final demonstrated that, managing the occasion probably in a better way than Tokito did, but he’s such an unbelievable talent.
“To be playing at his level at (his age), it’s just ridiculous – it just shows the talent and the potential that he has. And he’s bringing a new style to the sport as well. Other players are having to learn, having to get better.
Big fight in the final to bring home the doubles title with @GordonReid91 💪🏼🏆
Lost out in the semi finals of the singles. Congrats @tindelapuente on the title
We move forwards, see you soon Paris 🧡 pic.twitter.com/n5aYQz5Jwx
— Alfie Hewett (@alfiehewett6) May 29, 2023
“I see a lot of myself in him in terms of his attitude and his fearlessness. It’s great to have someone fresh on the scene. I’m sure he’s going to be winning a lot in the future but I’ll try and stop him.
“That’s a big reason why my level this year has been so high because he beat me in the Masters last year and I didn’t like it. I went home and I trained hard and I worked hard and it’s made my game a lot better.”
Hewett’s Australian Open triumph was part of a 16-match winning singles run between January and March that brought his four successive titles.
“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “It’s just a sign of good work behind the scenes. It was new territory for me really. I struggled towards the end of it.
“It makes me appreciate the likes of Novak (Djokovic) and (Daniil) Medvedev when they go on ridiculous runs of not losing for however many matches and back-to-back events – it’s not easy to do.
“You feel the pressure that people are expecting you to win. The level I was playing at in Australia and Rotterdam was probably the best I’ve ever played but then I went to the States and it dropped, and I was like, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m not used to this, why’s my level not where it was’.
“But that’s just normal, you go through these periods. I enjoyed it while it lasted. I got beaten in the end but it hasn’t dampened my spirit with where I’m at. To win eight titles out of 11 is not bad.”
Since the end of that run, Hewett has led Great Britain to the World Team Cup title before a narrow loss to Spain’s Martin De la Puente, another younger player, in the semi-finals of the Barcelona Open.
In Paris, he will be favourite to add to the singles titles he won in 2017, 2020 and 2021, while he and Reid will bid for a 17th grand slam doubles title.
After that, Hewett’s focus will turn to Wimbledon, where he made his first singles final last year only to lose a dramatic encounter to Kunieda.
“Of course it’s one I want to win, there’s no secret,” he said. “I can’t sit here and lie. But the goal for now is the French and trying to get as strong and fit and healthy as I can.”