Infotainment Factory: Meet Australian tennis' next big thing

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Thursday, 20 December 2018

Meet Australian tennis' next big thing


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This time last year, Alexei Popyrin was nothing more than a kid with a dream and a massive hill to climb.

Twelve months later he has trained with Serena Williams, beaten players in the top 50 and risen nearly 500 spots on the world rankings.

Now ranked 152 in the world, Popyrin’s dream is fast becoming a reality as he joins an exciting group of young Aussies led by the breakout star of 2018, Alex de Minaur.

Born in Sydney to Russian parents, Popyrin moved overseas when he was just eight, firstly to Dubai and then to Spain two years later, giving him the exposure to clay courts so often denied to up-and-coming Australian players.

That move paid off in 2017, when he became just the fifth Australian to win the French Open boys title, joining an elite list that also includes Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Phil Dent.

 

Alexei Popyrin with Serena Williams

The upward trend continued in 2018, with Popyrin winning his first ATP main draw match, and defeating a player ranked in the top 40 for the first time. That victory, over fellow Australian Matt Ebden at the Swiss Indoors, meant a matchup against Alex Zverev, ranked five in the world. And while Popyrin went down in straight sets, it was an invaluable experience.

“Definitely it was a step up,” Popyrin told Wide World of Sports.

“It was my first time against a top-five player, in fact first time against top-10 or even top-20!

“It really is another level and something that comes with experience. I felt like I was pretty on-par with him, but he just stepped up on the important points.

“He played great, I played pretty well, it was just a couple of points here and there where he stepped up. I keep learning from this and getting experience and hopefully soon I can compete with them.”

Popyrin’s effort earned high praise, with Zverev in particular predicting big things for the 19-year-old.

It’s the same potential that’s caught the eye of former grand slam semi-finalist, and now Tennis Australia Performance Director, Wally Masur.

 

Alexei Popyrin

“Sometimes when you watch kids it’s not how they play, it’s the manner,” Masur told Wide World of Sports.

“He just struck me as a kid that wasn’t afraid, he enjoyed the moment and the big match. For tennis that’s a great attitude.

“What’s so important in today’s game is he has the weapons. He has the size, he serves well, he’s got a good forehand, he plays well on clay, he can generate his own pace. There’s a lot to like about his game.”

Popyrin has come under the guidance of renowned coach Patrick Mouratoglou, training at his tennis academy in Spain. It’s brought him into contact with some of the world’s best, including 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams.

“Every time I hit with the top players I always ask them questions and pick their brain,” Popyrin says.

“It’s interesting to get their views on how to make it to the top, and how they achieve such great things.

“I’m always keen to learn from the top players.”

 

Alexei Popyrin 2017 French Open boys singles.

And learn he has. Popyrin claimed his first title on the Challenger Tour in August, taking out the Jinan Open in China, a tournament where he came through three rounds of qualifying just to reach the main draw. The win, just a couple of weeks after his 19th birthday, made him the youngest Australian to win a tournament since Nick Kyrgios in 2013.

That, followed soon after by his maiden top-tier win against Ebden, has made it necessary for the right-hander to re-evaluate his goals for the future. It’s something he’s conscious of, to ensure he’s always pushing himself to get better.

“It’s so important. If you reach the goal earlier than expected, you’ve got to raise the bar higher, that’s something I do all the time,” Popyrin said.

“I keep putting goals down, both in training and tournament ranking wise, and for me the most important thing is to keep putting high expectations on myself and striving to be better.”

With both Popyrin and de Mineur yet to celebrate their 20th birthdays, it raises hopes of a golden run for Australian tennis, with two potential stars so young.

It’s been a long time between drinks for Australia, with Lleyton Hewitt the last male to win a grand slam title, when he lifted the Wimbledon trophy in 2002.

According to Masur, both Popyrin and de Mineur have the potential to end the drought.

“That’s right, there’s plenty to be excited about,” he said.

“For both of them, the next few years are about adapting to the pro ranks, putting the processes in place around discipline and preparation that will allow both of them to have a long career.

“We know they can play, it’s very exciting times for Australia.”

This time last year, Alexei Popyrin was nothing more than a kid with a dream and a massive hill to climb.

Twelve months later he has trained with Serena Williams, beaten players in the top 50 and risen nearly 500 spots on the world rankings.

Now ranked 152 in the world, Popyrin’s dream is fast becoming a reality as he joins an exciting group of young Aussies led by the breakout star of 2018, Alex de Minaur.

Born in Sydney to Russian parents, Popyrin moved overseas when he was just eight, firstly to Dubai and then to Spain two years later, giving him the exposure to clay courts so often denied to up-and-coming Australian players.

That move paid off in 2017, when he became just the fifth Australian to win the French Open boys title, joining an elite list that also includes Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Phil Dent.

 

Alexei Popyrin with Serena Williams

The upward trend continued in 2018, with Popyrin winning his first ATP main draw match, and defeating a player ranked in the top 40 for the first time. That victory, over fellow Australian Matt Ebden at the Swiss Indoors, meant a matchup against Alex Zverev, ranked five in the world. And while Popyrin went down in straight sets, it was an invaluable experience.

“Definitely it was a step up,” Popyrin told Wide World of Sports.

“It was my first time against a top-five player, in fact first time against top-10 or even top-20!

“It really is another level and something that comes with experience. I felt like I was pretty on-par with him, but he just stepped up on the important points.

“He played great, I played pretty well, it was just a couple of points here and there where he stepped up. I keep learning from this and getting experience and hopefully soon I can compete with them.”

Popyrin’s effort earned high praise, with Zverev in particular predicting big things for the 19-year-old.

It’s the same potential that’s caught the eye of former grand slam semi-finalist, and now Tennis Australia Performance Director, Wally Masur.

 

Alexei Popyrin

“Sometimes when you watch kids it’s not how they play, it’s the manner,” Masur told Wide World of Sports.

“He just struck me as a kid that wasn’t afraid, he enjoyed the moment and the big match. For tennis that’s a great attitude.

“What’s so important in today’s game is he has the weapons. He has the size, he serves well, he’s got a good forehand, he plays well on clay, he can generate his own pace. There’s a lot to like about his game.”

Popyrin has come under the guidance of renowned coach Patrick Mouratoglou, training at his tennis academy in Spain. It’s brought him into contact with some of the world’s best, including 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams.

“Every time I hit with the top players I always ask them questions and pick their brain,” Popyrin says.

“It’s interesting to get their views on how to make it to the top, and how they achieve such great things.

“I’m always keen to learn from the top players.”

 

Alexei Popyrin 2017 French Open boys singles.

And learn he has. Popyrin claimed his first title on the Challenger Tour in August, taking out the Jinan Open in China, a tournament where he came through three rounds of qualifying just to reach the main draw. The win, just a couple of weeks after his 19th birthday, made him the youngest Australian to win a tournament since Nick Kyrgios in 2013.

That, followed soon after by his maiden top-tier win against Ebden, has made it necessary for the right-hander to re-evaluate his goals for the future. It’s something he’s conscious of, to ensure he’s always pushing himself to get better.

“It’s so important. If you reach the goal earlier than expected, you’ve got to raise the bar higher, that’s something I do all the time,” Popyrin said.

“I keep putting goals down, both in training and tournament ranking wise, and for me the most important thing is to keep putting high expectations on myself and striving to be better.”

With both Popyrin and de Mineur yet to celebrate their 20th birthdays, it raises hopes of a golden run for Australian tennis, with two potential stars so young.

It’s been a long time between drinks for Australia, with Lleyton Hewitt the last male to win a grand slam title, when he lifted the Wimbledon trophy in 2002.

According to Masur, both Popyrin and de Mineur have the potential to end the drought.

“That’s right, there’s plenty to be excited about,” he said.

“For both of them, the next few years are about adapting to the pro ranks, putting the processes in place around discipline and preparation that will allow both of them to have a long career.

“We know they can play, it’s very exciting times for Australia.”

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