2023 Australian Open – All Abilities Day

By Vanessa Taylor

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The 2023 Australian Open held its inaugural All Abilities Day on the second Tuesday of the tournament.

The day started with the first adults’ blind and low vision (BLV) tennis exhibition held at a Grand Slam.

Laying down the adjusted baseline. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

The exhibition took place on Show Court 3, where a temporary baseline reduced the court size by 1.7 metres at each end.

Other adjustments include shorter 25 inch racquets and larger and audible tennis balls.

The BLW exhibition players with NSW Inclusion Tennis Coach Steve Manley (right). Photo: Vanessa Taylor

One of the players participating was Courtney Webeck, from the small town of Gloucester, three hours north of Sydney. Already an athlete, Webeck first tried tennis in May 2022.

Five months later, she won the B2 category at the Australian Blind and Low Vision Championships.

She followed her victory with a win in both singles and doubles at the Perth Open and backed that up by winning the same events at the Adelaide Open.

Courtney Webeck competing in the B2 event at the inaugural Australian BLW tournament last year. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

As a B2 player, the second most vision-impaired BLV category, she is permitted three bounces once the ball’s over the net to hit it back.

But anyone who’s seen Courtney play knows that she often takes the ball after the first bounce – she is able to tune her hearing in so completely to the ball’s ringing tone as it bounces.

And sometimes she leaps to hit a shot, in the style of Ons Jabeur.

Courtney Webeck listening to the ball at the exhibition match on Court 3.
Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Webeck proved to be a media natural in feature interviews with Channel 9 and in the promotional video regularly shown on the big screens around Melbourne Park.

In the video, she described what tennis players of all abilities have in common.

“The very thing that makes us all equal – the way tennis makes you feel. I would know. The feeling of the ball hitting the racquet. The feeling of the sun on your face. The feeling of adrenalin in your veins. The feeling when you do what nobody thought you could…”

Winner of 15 Slams and four Olympic gold medals, including one in wheelchair basketball, Dylan Alcott obliged selfie requests around the grounds. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

All Abilities Day also introduced the first international tournaments for the deaf and hard of hearing, and persons with intellectual disability .

Advantage Autism exhibition players and neurodiverse visitors could take time out in the new sensory and calm spaces.

Gustavo Fernandez hitting a topspin forehand on Kia Arena for Round 1. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

The wheelchair tournament draw was expanded to include 16 singles players with the first round scheduled for All Abilities Day.

At Kia Arena, world No. 6 Ruben Spaargaren of the Nederlands played 2nd seed Gustavo Fernandez from Argentina.

Ruben Spaargaren serving to Gustavo Fernandez. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

The 6-3 6-2 scoreline to Fernandez did not reflect how hard Spaargaren fought in the 88 minute match with 19 deuces.

The players broke each other’s serve early in both sets. But in total Fernandez managed to break eight times to four breaks for his opponent.

While Spaargaren sometimes struggled with his backhand, the forehand of Fernandez was responsible for many of his winners, along with three remarkable smashes.

The match was a great start to this year’s wheelchair competition and a fitting feature of All Abilities Day.

Title photo from Tennis Australia

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