by Rajagopalan Rohinee
All it takes is one glance at Alex de Minaur to know the teenager has something distinct about him.
He does not have the imposing stature – height bestowed or otherwise – many of his peers and rivals command. But given the quick-fire way expectations have been passed over in the Australian men’s tennis circuit, like a baton, from youngster to youngster, de Minaur’s lack of physical impressiveness seems like a much-needed antidote.
More importantly, with his spryness on the court, coupled with a compact and wiry frame – justifying his nickname, Demon – de Minaur looks capable enough to not only hold the weight of these expectations, but also live up to them as and when opportunity presents itself before him. And, in the course of the last few days, between the end of the 2018 season and now, at the start of the 2019, de Minaur has had several opportunities to back up claims about his potential.
A quarter-final finish in Brisbane followed by the maiden ATP title win in Sydney meant that the 19-year-old had his job cut out for him at Melbourne Park, as the top-ranked Australian player. And against Pedro Sousa, who had quelled his personal demons – pardon the pun – in reaching the main draw of a Major for the first time in his career, de Minaur had a riveting first round opponent.
Watching him play, it became clearer why his game reminded many of Lleyton Hewitt although personally, I thought his game had a splashing of David Ferrer, too, as he went about his shot-creation – serving as a reminder to his Spanish connection.
The match, then, reiterated de Minaur’s tactical prowess as he exploited and bested Sousa’s aggressiveness with craftiness, drawing out the errors from his racquet instead of going for winners outright. With the win, de Minaur equalled his previous best result in the tournament – reaching the second round in 2017 – but this time around, he does not have the advantage of the relative obscurity he had had before. In his post-match press conference, de Minaur, too, concurred about him being a different player than who he was in 2017.
“I think I’m a completely different player from a couple years ago. Really looking forward to going out there, coming back, just having fun. I think that’s the main thing. To feed off the energy of the crowd. I mean, the support I’ve been getting has been amazing. Just makes you want to go out there, compete and have fun,” de Minaur admitted.
It’s for this reason, perhaps, the draw takes on added significance for him this year, with a third-round clash against world no. 2 and 2009 Australian Open champion, Rafael Nadal looking imminent as the first week unwinds. Undoubtedly, Nadal would go in with an edge over his younger rival in the match. But it is what de Minaur – with his unfazed temperament – would present on the day that continues to add to the fervour building around that potentiality.
Beyond the obviousness of that one match-up centred on de Minaur – as far as the home hopes go – de Minaur’s continuity at the Australian Open is also acting as a buffer to blot the backdrop of chaos unfolding in Australian tennis.
At a time, when the divisions in the country’s tennis ranks are almost spilling out with Thanasi Kokkinakis voicing his opinion about not receiving a main draw wild card, and Bernard Tomic accusing the country’s Davis Cup captain Hewitt of favouritism, focusing on de Minaur’s on-court exploits, then, is quite a normalcy-offering respite, much like his game.