Alfie Hewett relieved to be able to play on after classification rules rethink

·5-min read

Alfie Hewett insists he holds no resentment over the two-year process that threatened to exclude him from wheelchair tennis.

The 23-year-old confirmed the PA news agency’s story last week that he has been cleared to continue his hugely successful career after a rethink of changes to classification rules.

Hewett, who has the hip condition Perthes diseases, was told in 2019 that he did not meet new criteria determining who would be eligible to compete in the sport.

Alfie Hewett will be able to continue his career
Alfie Hewett will be able to continue his career (Tim Goode/PA)

However, the criteria were based on para-athletics and, following new research into the specific demands of tennis, Hewett was reassessed last weekend in Amsterdam and given the good news.

He said of that moment: “I barely got a wink of sleep the night before so I was pretty drained, just floods of tears. I obviously let everyone know back home, my family were on the edge of their seats for a long period.

“I did have a glass of bubbly at the airport but the first thing I wanted to do was get some sleep because I was exhausted. Mentally and emotionally it was a very draining experience but obviously the best one.

“Only now I realise how much it all really weighed on me. You’ve probably all felt it in your lives at some point when something so heavy is taken away you actually feel that lift off your shoulders, and I did. I just felt so much relief.”

The International Tennis Federation’s philosophy regarding wheelchair tennis is stated as providing competitive playing opportunities for players who cannot participate in the non-disabled version of the sport.

Hewett, who has used a wheelchair since the age of seven, clearly falls into that category, but he said: “I don’t hold any resentment.

“It wasn’t a personal thing and, as much as it impacted me greatly, I was always aware that the ITF as a governing body have a responsibility to look after the classification code in the sport. Now all I care about is moving forward and what they’re doing for the sport is great.

“I can’t hold any sort of bad feeling towards them. They’ve allowed me to carry on, I’ve not missed a single tournament because of this decision.”

Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid have dominated wheelchair men's doubles
Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid have dominated wheelchair men’s doubles (Jon Super/AELTC Pool)

The Norfolk player was initially told he would be ineligible to compete from the end of 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic and the postponement of the Paralympics meant that was pushed back a year, prolonging the period of uncertainty.

“The beginning phase of it all was really difficult to get my head around,” he said. “Obviously I was a lot younger, I think my maturity probably didn’t help the situation.

“I was scared, I didn’t know if I had a future in the sport. I’ve sacrificed and dedicated pretty much my childhood and my whole career for the sport. So obviously to get that news initially was a tough thing to take.

“I had a lot of conversations. I work with a psychologist anyway so she became even bigger in that period to be able to continue. Once I got over the initial reaction and emotion of it all, I promised myself that I wanted, if it was going to be my last year, to go out in the best way.

“If the last year was spent being angry about that decision or not giving it 100 per cent, I think I would have a lot of regrets.

“I’ve had some unbelievable experiences in the last two years and I almost feel like, because of the situation, it gave me an extra dimension to my training, an extra drive to push myself and work and improve.”

Hewett will never know if things would have played out differently on the court without the sword hanging over his head but he has been remarkably successful, winning his fourth and fifth singles grand slam titles at the French Open, and going unbeaten at the slams in doubles alongside Gordon Reid.

He and Reid will hope to continue an eight tournament winning run at the Australian Open while they can also now target a first Paralympic gold in 2024 after a heart-breaking loss in the final in Tokyo.

Hewett knows there may be people who now question his place in the sport but he is unfazed, saying: “I’ve been spoken about for two and a half years now. I had to listen to comments and of course it’s not easy.

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and their judgment. I know where I stand, I know the situation from a factual point of view and I’ve never done anything wrong. I think this decision proves that I’m entitled to play wheelchair tennis.”

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