Life hasn’t always been easy for rising wheelchair tennis star Ben Bartram.
But the 17-year-old from Norfolk is set to make a big impact at his first senior Grand Slam in Melbourne this week.
His singles and doubles wildcard at the Australian Open sees him join fellow Norfolk native Alfie Hewett – a key figure in his journey so far – and Grand Slam-winning and Paralympic medal-winning teammate Gordon Reid in the draw.
Bartram, who has a rare genetic condition that affects his skeletal and muscle development, started playing tennis aged 11 after what he describes as a difficult time in his life.
“Before that I hadn’t played any sport for about a year and was in a bad place,” he told BBC Sport.
“I was lonely and sad and struggled with anxiety in high school. I put myself through the pain of walking just to try to feel normal.
“Tennis was a place where I felt normal. It opened up a lot of opportunities for me and it’s a great community that I can be a part of.”
Bartram has already had a stellar junior career and is steadily rising through the senior ranks. And the world number 17 wants to make the most of his last chance to shine and use it as a springboard for the rest of 2023.
“I want to play well, enjoy it and give it my all,” he said.
“Alfie was a huge role model when I was growing up and is still a huge inspiration.
“It’s weird to think that I went from sitting at home watching him play with Gordon at Wimbledon to now playing alongside them.
“They told me to enjoy it and absorb it all.”
Bartram’s accomplishments include becoming world number one junior (January-April 2021), beating British rival Dahnon Ward in the US Open junior final in September at Flushing Meadows and an impressive streak of form in the senior ranks last summer, which saw him win five titles in a row.
He will start his singles campaign in Melbourne on Tuesday against Japanese world number 11 Takashi Sanada, another Grand Slam debutant.
Bartram could face his 16-year-old doubles partner and rising star Tokito Oda, also from Japan, in the quarter-finals.
Hewett, top seed after Shingo Kunieda’s retreatopens against another Japanese player – Daisuke Arai – while Reid, who returns after a wrist injury affected his 2022 campaign, takes on Dutch player Tom Egberink and could face Hewett in the last eight.
Hewett and Reid will be chasing a fourth straight doubles title at Melbourne Park, while in women’s singles Lucy Shuker opens against second seed Yui Kamiji of Japan and in the quadruple division Andy Lapthorne takes on American David Wagner .
‘Embrace the experience’
Bartram’s rise in the rankings has impressed Reid and Hewett, with the trio training together at the National Tennis Center in Roehampton earlier this month before traveling to Australia.
“Ben loves forehand flares all the way,” Hewett said. “We train together at the same place in Norwich, so I’ve been hitting with him for a few years.
“He will want to be competitive and want to win; being part of your first Grand Slam is a special moment.
“You never forget your first one, so hopefully he enjoys it and embraces the experience.
“I don’t think he would have expected to play his first Grand Slam at this stage.
“A year ago he was playing at the Junior Wheelchair Masters and I’m sure he will really relish the chance to play against the best in the world in Australia.
“For me it’s great that there is talent from Norfolk. To see that means a lot to me.”
Despite his youth, Bartram hopes he can help inspire others to get into the sport and achieve their ambitions.
“Tennis has changed my relationship with my wheelchair,” he said. “I am passionate about sport – playing is not a job or a chore for me and I love it so much.
“It’s great for the younger generation to see me, Alfie and Gordon in our chairs doing what we’re doing and hopefully I can have the same effect on the young people that they had on me.”