De Minaur carries Australian hopes against Nadal

 - Simon Cambers

The 19-year-old says he has learned from his first meeting with the man he calls king

Alex De Minaur shouting for victory AUstralian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

In the 1960s, Australian men dominated grand slam tennis, winning 32 of the 40 grand slams to be played, including all 10 in their own country.

But it is more than 40 years since the last home men’s winner of the Australian Open, Mark Edmondson and the last home winner of any singles title in Melbourne was in 1978, when Chris O’Neil won the women’s title.

John Marks, in 1978, Pat Cash, in 1987 and 1988 and Lleyton Hewitt, in 2005, are the only Australian men to reach the final since.

“Just trying to focus on myself“

But in Alex de Minaur, Australia has a young man they can get behind. Ranked 127 when he lost in the first round in Melbourne 12 months ago, he began this year’s event inside the top 30 and on Friday he takes on Rafael Nadal in the third round.

Local television has been chasing him for interviews at Melbourne Park while his face has been splashed across the newspapers since before the tournament began. Together with Ash Barty on the women’s side, De Minaur is the centre of attention.

“It's a different position for me, a position I'm not really used to,” De Minaur said. “It's sort of come out of nowhere. It's been an unbelievable year. I'm enjoying every second of it. I'm just trying to focus on myself, on going out there on court and competing, having fun. Nothing has changed for me.”

Alex de Minaur jumping during his second round match at the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
De Minaur has a chance

At 19, De Minaur is already Australia’s highest-ranked player, having won his first ATP Tour title last weekend in Sydney. Incredibly fast around the court, De Minaur has been likened to Hewitt in terms of game-style, scampering around the baseline and retrieving everything.

Beating Nadal, who won the title in Melbourne 10 years ago and has made the final in three of the past seven years, beat De Minaur handily when they played at Wimbledon last summer, but Australian Peter McNamara, who won three grand slam doubles titles and reached a singles world ranking of No 7, believes De Minaur has a chance.

“He’s got to believe in himself,” he said in an interview. “There’s going to be some long rallies, let me tell you, lot of running. Lot of counter-punching, and he’s got to serve well, get a couple of free points.”

Nadal: “De Minaur he's a little bit Spanish!“

McNamara said De Minaur was also showing that you can be a nice guy and still succeed.

“He’s changing the mould, that’s what I like,” he said. “Respectful, works hard, back to the old tradition of what I learnt, which was, you work hard, you get the results. Some of the other guys find that a little bit difficult, which I understand. But (put in the) hard work and the results come. He’s the living proof and the other guys should take a leaf out of his book. He’s a great example to the next generation of Australians.”

When Nadal beat another Australian, Matt Ebden, in round two, he said De Minaur was “a little bit Spanish, no”, a compliment from the 17-times grand slam champion. De Minaur was born in Sydney and after moving with his family to Alicante, Spain when he was five years old, he has split his time between the two countries since.

His allegiance is to Australia, though, and the country has taken him to their hearts, his lung-busting victories thrilling the crowds at Melbourne Park, especially his five-set win over Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen in the second round.

Some wins under his belt

De Minaur said Nadal was “like a king in Spain” and when they played at Wimbledon last summer, the Australian was a little dazed, overwhelmed by the occasion as Nadal cruised through in split sets. This time, with a home crowd and a nation behind him, anything is possible.

“I'm obviously playing some great tennis,” he said. “To be able to get all these wins under my belt definitely helps a lot, to build just that momentum and keep playing some good tennis day in, day out. Obviously against Rafa that's going to be something special.”

“I've already stepped out on court and played him, so that whole experience of playing Rafa, that's not new to me anymore. Hopefully this time around, I can go a bit more relaxed, just focus on myself and try to play some good tennis."