Grassroots to Glory - Andy Lapthorne
Britain's top-ranked wheelchair tennis player is back for his third Games after a long period of mental rest.
Andy Lapthorne believes he's got the inside track to taking on a big rival for Paralympic gold - after all, they are normally team-mates.
Any completed a career Grand Slam with American David Wagner when they won the quad wheelchair doubles title at Roland Garros in June, following it up with a second Wimbledon trophy a few weeks later.
But he will join forces with Antony Cotterill in Tokyo, putting the special US/British relationship on ice for the duration of the Games.
"David and I know each other's games like the backs of our hands and it's hard to get past each other at times," he said.
"It can be quite difficult to play together when you've also got to play against each other in singles and it’s the same when we go to the Paralympics.
"It's a weird dynamic, but something as tennis players we definitely have to get used to."
This is Andy's third Paralympics having won doubles silver with mentor Peter Norfolk at London 2012, then singles silver and doubles bronze in Rio, the latter with Jamie Burdekin.
And he can take heart from a recent win over Wagner alongside Cotterill at the British Open.
"That was a good confidence booster, they're going to be one of the top teams we're competing with for the medal," said Andy, who has seen the fortunes of ParalympicsGB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding.
"Antony and I have played together for a long while now, though I play with David in the Slams. It was a bit of an anxious wait to see if he got in as a wildcard."
"It's always nice to win a medal with someone else and I'm really looking forward to getting out there with him."
Andy knows what it's like to be the new boy on the team, having made his Games debut alongside Norfolk, dubbed 'The Quadfather' for his long-time domination of the sport.
When Norfolk won in Athens, he was the first Brit to claim Paralympic gold in the category for athletes with additional restrictions in the playing arm, which limits the ability to handle the racquet and manoeuvre the wheelchair.
It was a title he defended four years later in Beijing before winning doubles silver, aged 51, with Andy in London, where he also carried the British flag at the opening ceremony.
In quad tennis circles, Norfolk set the standard for the likes of Australia's Dylan Alcott, the defending champion from Rio, now follows.
"I was lucky in that I was around Peter from a very young age," said Andy, who is one of over 1,000 athletes to currently benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
"I got to know him quite well, we always had a laugh. He taught me a lot and a lot of the tricks and gamesmanship I use now, things people don't see, I learned from him. "
"Playing doubles with Peter I picked up how to be ruthless, just all the little things you need to do to be your best. He taught me so much, so quickly that I was fast-tracked into being world number one in doubles at the age of 17 or 18, purely from playing with him and learning."
“It's an advantage if you can be in that position, it's like when you see Jack Draper train with Andy Murray, it makes a massive difference. "
"If I can do that with some of the guys on their way up, playing that older and more experienced role, that would be great."
Andy, 30, stumbled across wheelchair tennis at a beginners’ camp in Nottingham run by the Tennis Foundation, describing the moment he first got in a tennis chair as like driving an ‘F1 car’.
Quickly identified as one to watch, his progress through the system was rapid—perhaps too much for the teen.
He was soon travelling non-stop around the world, becoming the world's top ranked doubles player before turning 20, though it was another decade before he achieved the same mark in singles.
However, he admits the effort required to maintain such high-level performances finally took its toll.
Last October, Andy announced he was taking an extended break from the sport to focus on his mental health, writing an honest and personal account of his struggles, including a lack of energy and self-worth.
And it's all part of a journey he believes has given him new perspective arriving at his third Games.
"To come from where I came from in terms of being where I was at with my mental health, it's a great confidence booster going into Tokyo," he added.
"I know it's going to be a high-pressure situation. It's something I've prepared for and hopefully I'll be all okay when I'm out there. I'll be working hard to make sure I'm happy, first and foremost, and then hopefully I can play well off the back of that. "
"I've been close to that gold medal, but I won't be defined by it. "
"With everything that's happened to me, I'm just trying to enjoy it and what will be will be. I've trained hard and I'm working hard and hopefully that will be enough."
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