Alex De Minaur was going to lose.
It was a certainty from the moment the warm up started. His shots were, quite literally, ‘hit and miss’.
To top it off, his opponent, Frenchman Elliot Benchetrit, sported legs surely fashioned from the strongest oak trees, and a serve speed able to make even Milos Raonic scowl with jealousy.
It was only a matter of when, not if, I would be having a post-match interview with a despondent Aussie up-and-comer fresh off a comprehensive straight sets loss.
So, when De Minaur stood in front of me ready for the first question after a 6 – 3, 7 – 5 tactical and mental dismantlement of Benchetrit, I was at a loss for words… and subsequently questions.
It was at that moment it became clear: De Minaur isn’t one to conform to expectation. Indeed, his game style alone is an ode to his uniqueness. Listed as 64.1 kilos and many a growth spurt away from six foot, one wouldn’t pick Minaur as a volley enthusiast. Cue 46 net approaches in the space of two sets, and you get a young Australian player who’s a walking embodiment of the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
“Yeah that’s sort of my game you know,” he says, the glow of a fresh victory reflecting off the sweat still dripping from his brow.
“I really like to come in, whatever chance I get… I think that’s where I play my best tennis.”
The 16-year-old is coming off a 34 – 13 ITF win-loss record in 2015, capped off by a performance at the U.S. Open that saw his maiden semi-final showing at junior grand slam level.
“Last year was a very good year,” Alex admits, but he doesn’t beam with joy when recalling it. This year, he wants to go bigger. Go better. “I’m really looking and wanting to do well in the (junior) slams this year, then I’ll start playing Futures and hopefully get my ATP ranking up.”
Indeed, the Rubik’s Cube that is Alex De Minaur extends beyond his playing style and into his heritage. De Minaur is an aussie… with a Latin heritage… who’s based abroad.
“I’ve bounced around,” Alex admits, who moved from Sydney to Spain at age five, came back to Australia after eight years, stayed for three, then relocated back to Spain again.
But, when it’s all said and done, there’s only one flag he wants to represent when he walks onto court. “I consider Australia my home, it’s always where I’d like to be the most and where I feel the most comfortable.”
Being on the road almost non-stop is hard enough for even the best tennis players, let alone juniors still trying to make both their mark and ends meat. Add in an off-court life where ‘home’ is such a malleable term, and the constant jumping from globe corner to globe corner must be unbearable.
But, unsurprisingly, Alex sees it differently. “I really love travelling so it doesn’t bother me,” he says, his honesty as striking as his already world class backhand down the line. “I feed off the energy. Different courts, different environments. A normal kid my age barely travels the world, I’m living the dream, just to think about it is amazing.”
In other words, Alex is a human conduit, lapping up the energy and the ever-growing crowds that will emerge as his career progresses. Hmmm, a passionate Aussie youngster who thrives on the crowd. Who could his idol be…
“Lleyton. Growing up I was always watching him on TV. He’s just amazing, he’s fiery and patriotic.”
An answer as generic as there is for a young Aussie up-and-comer but, unlike many, Di Minaur walks the walk when game-time comes along. His bellows of “c’mon!” send tendrils of patriotic excitement up the spines of everyone watching his matches.
Sure, today he may’ve only been in front of barely one hundred people on Melbourne Park’s Court Six, but close your eyes and hear the crowd as he roars and, for a split second, you’re under the roof at night on Rod Laver Arena, about to enter a fifth set in a battle for the ages.
Better still, Alex looking directly at his opponent when he lets fire his war cries is yet another tribute to the man who has given so much to Australian tennis. But Lleyton’s rulebook is not the only one Alex abides by religiously.
“I love how Federer plays. He’s inspired me to try and come to the net more…” he pauses and realizes he may be comparing himself to one of the game’s greatest ever and, ironically with the humbleness of Federer, reiterates the reality. “Right now I don’t have the weapons like him, but I’m trying to develop my game style to be… not exactly like him but come to the net more and finish.”
So, like the usual, but with his own little twist.
How perfectly Alex.