Of all the many emotional moments that have made these Paralympic Games such an involving, stirring spectacle, it is hard to think of one where the athletes were so visibly distraught. Red-eyed, shoulders slumped, their stares cast to the ground, Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett were inconsolable on Friday evening in Tokyo after experiencing defeat for the second time in as many days and as many Games.
On Thursday the British wheelchair tennis stars, currently ranked in the top five in the world as individuals and the best as a pair, were both beaten in the semi-finals of the singles competition. A day later and they were beaten in the gold medal match of the doubles, by the same French pairing that had vanquished them five years ago in Rio.
That the match was much closer this time around – ending on a third set tiebreak 6-4, 0-6, 7-6 (3) in favour of Stéphane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer – did not seem to feature at all in the pair’s calculation. Nor did the fact that they had taken part in an excellent match. Indeed, their distress wasn’t even just about the title, the only championship they have not won together, at the event they consider the pinnacle of their sport. It was about more than that.
Reid, the elder half of this photogenic, all-action partnership, was the one who tried to sum up what had happened on court. “I think we played on their terms in the first set, we weren’t offensive we weren’t taking the ball on. We weren’t playing our game, our A game,” he said. “We did a great job of turning that around from the start of the second set. We were unstoppable for nine games but to do that for a long period of time takes a lot of energy, takes a lot of intensity, a lot of focus. I think it was just too much for us to maintain.”
That’s the simple sporting analysis. But Reid didn’t talk for long before he introduced a human element to the outcome, one that was obviously still pressing on his mind afterwards. It was a moment when the British pair were 5-4 up in the final set and receiving serve. “It’s 5-4 and we’re 15-0 up,” Reid said, his voice suddenly tightening, “then I miss a smash on the top of the net to go 0-30. There were a few opportunities like that.”
Reid was right, there were. When they were on it, as they were in that thunderstorm of a second set in which the French pair refused to concede a point but were still blown away, he and Hewett were unstoppable. But that was less than half the match. Elsewhere there were errors, frequently unforced, and sometimes at the most crucial moments. Meanwhile, the French pair stoically, dogmatically clung on.
Ultimately, the crucial difference was not one of technique but of mentality, of character. Losing on those grounds is difficult not to take personally. And it all came from such a true and meaningful place. There was maybe a touch of overconfidence involved, yes. But there was also a simple emotionality to the way they were playing. “We both wanted it so badly,” said Reid, and maybe that was too much.
Beyond the titles and the prestige of the Paralympics, the moment mattered to Reid and Hewett because they may not have much time left together. Like the swimmer Ellie Robinson, Hewett has Perthes disease, a condition which affects mobility in the hip. In 2019 the International Tennis Federation reclassified Perthes disease as not severe enough to qualify for wheelchair tennis, a decision that would already have been implemented were it not for the pandemic. There is now an independent review into whether the ITF were right to make such an assessment, but Hewett is powerless to affect the outcome, which could be decided at any moment.
“I’ve always tried to put it to the back of my mind,” said Hewett. “The thought of it gets me upset so I’m trying not to talk about it, to be honest. We’ve put in seven, eight years of work together and we’ve had a lot of highs and some lows as well, but it’s been an absolute pleasure to be on the court with Gordon. He’s mentored me ever since I was a young kid and still mentors me now. I couldn’t have asked for a better partnership.”
Not that the gods were finished there. In one of the cruel twists at which sport is so proficient, the Hewett and Reid partnership must face off against each other less than 24 hours after this defeat to decide the bronze medal in the singles competition. There is wry laughter between the pair when the prospect is brought up.
“I don’t think either of us have really thought about it yet,” said Reid. “It’s so fresh and so raw that we’re going to probably have to sleep on it. There’s a bronze medal at stake, so we have to try the best we can. Put this match behind us and hopefully have a good battle tomorrow.”
One of them will emulate Jordanne Whiley, who on Friday won bronze in an intense 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-4 win over the Netherlands’ Aniek van Koot to secure the first individual wheelchair singles medal by a British woman in what will be the 29-year-old’s final Paralypic Games.