Off the court, Saalim Naser is a humble teenager.
He smiles nervously as we set up the camera for an interview.
However, as he speaks, it becomes clear that this shy 18-year-old from Melbourne’s northern suburbs is driven by a big ambition.
“I want to be number one and I want to be the best in the world,” he says, “gotta put in the hard work.”
That ambition translates on the court where he’s ultra competitive.
“He’s a grinder, a bit like Lleyton Hewitt,” says Naser’s hitting partner, Heath Davidson, the current world number five in quad wheelchair tennis.
Born with spina bifida, Naser’s tennis journey began at the age of nine when renowned Australian wheelchair tennis coach Greg Crump discovered his talent during a visit to the Royal Children’s Hospital.
“He had that x-factor straight away. So, as soon as he got released from hospital, we invited him to come down to Melbourne Park and do some sessions,” Crump says.
“And then he hooked on with a private coach and the rest is history, as they say.”
History at the US Open
Naser has since risen through junior ranks and, in May, he lifted the ITF World Team Cup in Portugal.
Now, the junior world number seven faces his toughest test: the US Open.
Naser has travelled to New York this week to compete in the inaugural junior wheelchair tennis tournament at a grand slam.
Over three days, 16 players aged between 14 and 18 years and hailing from 11 countries, will take part in the matches to be held over three days.
“I’m very excited and nervous, but I think it’s going to be a great tournament,” Naser says.
“I think it’s great what they’re doing for junior wheelchair athletes.”
“It’s amazing. It just shows that wheelchair tennis, on the whole, is moving forward,” echoes Davidson.
“The able-bodied have had juniors in the slams for a long time now and it’s really cool to see we’re following in their footsteps.
“We train just as hard as everybody else and it’s just really cool to have them over there this time.”
Naser counts himself as lucky to be hitting with Davidson, a dual Paralympic medallist who dominated doubles with childhood friend Dylan Alcott, teaming up to win four quad doubles titles at the Australian Open.
‘Proud to call them mates’
“He’s a great guy,” Naser says of 35-year-old Davidson.
“He’s pretty much my inspiration. I’ve always wanted to start hitting with him,” he says.
“I’m proud to call [Davidson and Alcott] mates. It’s great what they’re doing for the sport and the message they’re putting out for disabled people.”
While the veteran Davidson says he’s still got the rookie’s measure, he says the potential is endless for Naser.
“He’s really smart, he’s extremely quick, so he gets a lot of balls back,” Davidson says.
“If he stays committed and puts in the hard yards … then we could potentially see a very, very good tennis player out of him.
“I’m here to help him all the way through.”
Crump says the competition at the US Open will be fierce.
“He could win some matches, he might lose some matches, too, but it’s going to be a great experience for his development and for the sport. Overall, I think it’s fantastic,” Crump says.
He says the future for wheelchair tennis in Australia is bright.
“We’ve got tournaments and a pathway for athletes [and] coaches around the states,” Crump says.
“Not everyone wants to be number one in the world but a lot of people want to play the sport.”
Beyond the US Open, Naser wants to play at the Australian Open and head to the Paralympics.
He knows reaching the top will require hard work, but he’s never been more motivated.
“The feeling of being number one it’s the best, like, you can say: ‘I’m the best in the world,’” Naser says.
“So I think that would complete my journey when I’m number one.”