He’s a self-professed gamer, nerd, McDonald's cheeseburger lover and he’d comfortably sit on Australia’s Mount Rushmore of wheelchair tennis players. Everyone, if you haven’t already, meet Heath Davidson, OAM.
Davidson, a player in the quad wheelchair division – meaning that 3 or more limbs are seriously impaired – is one of Australia’s most successful wheelchair tennis players behind International Tennis Federation Hall of Fame member David Hall and the ever-prolific Dylan Alcott; and he recently took the time to chat with The First Serve about his career and upcoming European campaign and gold medal defence at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.
Davidson’s curriculum vitae includes being the reigning four-time Australian Open doubles champion alongside his doubles partner and best mate, Dylan Alcott; a 2016 Rio Paralympic doubles gold medallist which, he describes, as “the proudest moment of [his] career”; former world #1 doubles player and the current world #7 singles player.
Despite his success, which, for some, seems a fait accompli from birth, Davidson’s rise to the elite level of wheelchair tennis has been anything but guaranteed. Born able-bodied, Davidson contracted a rare viral disease, transverse myelitis, at five months old which led to his paraplegia.
Then, in his teens, after only picking up a racquet at his local club as a way to help him to get into shape, Davidson quickly became one of the next big things in the Australian wheelchair tennis scene. However, just as quickly as he rose the ranks Davidson stepped away from the sport, for reasons unrelated to tennis, for seven and a half years.
What followed during that period was a long way from the life of an elite sportsperson.
It was only in 2014 that a whirlwind comeback began that ultimately culminated in Davidson and Alcott winning Paralympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In the space of two years, he'd gone from being lost to the sport to becoming an immortal. Impressive; no matter what language you speak.
Surprisingly, Davidson stated he initially didn’t quite comprehend the enormity of his accomplishments and it is only now, in the fullness of time, that he looks back and realises the gravitas of his success at Rio and what it means for generation next.
Upon reflection Davidson understands that what he and Alcott are providing the disabled youth of today is something that they themselves were not able to enjoy – a role model. A role model with a disability, in a wheelchair, on national free to air and prime-time television.
Commenting on the importance of being a role model, Davidson was quick to highlight the fact that when he first turned to tennis, despite his obvious talent, he never knew he could become a professional athlete for there was no one he could look up to and aspire to emulate. Now, Davidson is, to the masses, exactly what he didn't know he needed as a young tennis prodigy.
Presently, Davidson is gearing up for an eight-week mini-tour of Europe. First stop: Roland Garros and Davidson’s favourite surface, clay. Davidson and Alcott have elected to fly straight into Paris without a lead-up event. Normally, this would be a unique decision but with the current state of the pandemic, the pair elected to stay at home and enjoy an extended block of training before attacking the dirt. After Paris, it is off to Italy and then England, with the grass courts at Wimbledon firmly in their sights.
For Davidson, this year presents a big opportunity to climb up the rankings. Describing his game as in a “really good spot” Davidson is open about his desire to reach the world's top 3 in singles.
However, standing in the way is a long list of accomplished players. The current top 4 comprises 12-time grand slam champion Dylan Alcott; 2 time US Open winner Andy Lapthorne; 2020 US Open champion and Dutch wunderkind Sam Schroder; and tour veteran of 157 career titles including 7 grand slam titles, David Wagner.
Nonetheless, Davidson draws confidence from the fact he has beaten the entire top 10 at least once since he returned to the tour – except for Alcott. Although he believes he can soon add him to that list. After all, he never once lost to Alcott during their junior days.
Then, after Europe and the UK, it’s the big one, the Paralympics in Tokyo and his and Alcott’s gold medal defence.
Asked what one event he would like to win this year, Davidson was unequivocal. For him, it’s all about Tokyo – the feature event on the wheelchair tour calendar. The two weeks every four years where disabled athletes occupy the world's centre stage. And this time, he’ll have a full five-year training block behind him, training as a Tennis Australia sponsored player 6 days a week at his Melbourne Park base.
Defending their 2016 heroics won’t be easy for our Aussies, though. In 2016 they were down 4-6 1-4 to the three-time gold medal American pairing of Nick Taylor and David Wagner before mounting an unlikely comeback to emerge victorious 4-6 6-4 7-5.
This year, despite the fact Wagner and Taylor are both still top 10 doubles players, Davidson anticipates their biggest challengers will be the up and coming Dutch pairing of Schroder and Neils Vink, #4 and #6 in the doubles rankings respectively. When asked how he felt about the prospect of playing the Dutch pairing in the gold medal match, Davidson simply opined “it won’t be one to miss”.
In describing what makes him and his childhood mate such a strong doubles team, Davidson leaned on phrases like trust, freedom, and fun. Logically, the first facilitates the second and the second facilitates the third. However, like many successful athletes, what may in fact underpin their ability to succeed is a simple matter of perspective. Having lived a life full enough for two lifetimes with ups and downs to match; Davidson is clear in his understanding that tennis is “just a game”. It is this very perspective that likely enables his sense of freedom on court with Alcott.
Similarly, and notwithstanding his success and the prospects of another fruitful year on tour, Davidson seems to take more pride in his ability to support grassroots and inspire the similarly disabled Australian youth to pursue their own dreams. In his own words, Davidson’s favourite part about his success and platform is his “ability to give back” which is, at least in part, achieved through motivational speaking and school visits in conjunction with his on-court exploits.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to like Davidson and admire his achievements that have come with no shortage of adversity. Few people have a near eight-year break in their career and come back stronger. If nothing else, wheelchair tennis, in particular, is better placed for his presence. Hopefully, though, there are a few more wins to come.
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