Once upon a time, Australian tennis players went by what they weren’t. Rod Laver earned the nickname “Rocket” from his coach, Harry Hopman, not because he was fast, but because he was so unathletic as a kid (he obviously grew into the moniker). Ken Rosewall, the most unimposing of players, was forever known as “Muscles.” Now, after a hiatus, Alex De Minaur looks set to continue that ironic Aussie tradition.
“Dee-mon!” the fans Down Under chant when De Minaur starts to whirl and blur along the baseline, and track down balls that you don’t think can possibly be tracked down. It’s a convenient contraction of his last name, but “demon” is also the last word that comes to mind when you first see him. De Minaur is 19, but with his carefully parted hair, rail-thin frame and wrinkle-free face, he looks like he’s he’s just entering his teens. When he pounds his heart after winning a tough point, you worry that he might knock himself over.
What’s important, though, is that he keeps pounding. It’s only when you see De Minaur compete that you understand why the nickname has stuck. De Minaur is demonically, unrelentingly quick, and he’s the kind of fighter who never takes a shot off or beats himself. He weighs just 152 pounds and almost never earns a free point with his serve, but over the last three years De Minaur has risen from a ranking in the 1500s to his current, career-high perch at No. 29. Last week he won his first ATP tournament, in Sydney. When tennis’s prognosticators were asked to choose a dark horse in the men’s draw at the Australian Open, most of us picked De Minaur.
It wasn’t just De Minaur’s recent results that inspired those picks. It was also the exhilarating energy that he injects into every match he plays. Over the last season, he has wasted no time in establishing himself as the Next Gen’s premier late-night entertainer. At last year’s US Open, De Minaur stormed back from certain fifth-set defeat against Marin Cilic, before falling in one of the year’s best matches after 2:00 A.M. On Wednesday in Melbourne, he went late again, but this time he thrilled the home folks with a five-set win over Henri Laaksonen.
In both of those contests, De Minaur brought the crowd to its feet with his unique ability to cover ground and keep rallies alive—to make tennis matches resemble squash matches. Like a squash player, De Minaur knows how to recover toward the middle of the court at the same time that he’s hitting a ball. And like a squash player, he knows that there’s no shot he can’t reach if his first step is quick enough. De Minaur, like Rafael Nadal when he first arrived on tour, makes defense into something creative and crowd-pleasing. Sometimes he looks as if he’s skating out there.
The Demon Show couldn’t have come along at a better time for Australian men’s tennis. As De Minaur was clawing his way though his first two matches this week, Nick Kyrgios and Bernie Tomic, the leading Aussie members of the generation before him, were falling in the first round. After years of well-documented ups, downs and fights with the country’s tennis federation, neither looks like the future champion that fans Down Under thought they might be. But where Kyrgios and Tomic have always been conflicted, at best, about how much they want to play tennis, that’s not a problem for De Minaur. He’s taken Australian tennis back to the days of his gritty mentor, Lleyton Hewitt.
But he’s also done something more. Unlike Hewitt, De Minaur isn’t just a grinder or a retriever. He’s comfortable coming forward—he made it to net 41 times against Laaksonen—and he’s always trying to find ways to turn the tables in a rally and go on the attack. Most of all, De Minaur exudes an old-fashioned, un-whiny passion for the battle.
“I wish I was as grown-up as Alex De Minaur on the tennis court,” Andy Murray tweeted last year.
Yet if De Minaur is a throwback as a player, he’s a young man of his globalized time, too. His father, Anibal, is Uruguayan, and his mother, Esther, is Spanish. Alex was born in Sydney, but he has shuttled back and forth between Australia and Spain throughout his life, and he has dual citizenship. He trains in Alicante, Spain, with his longtime coach, Adolfo Gutierrez, but he plays under the Australian flag. For De Minaur, the Aussie tennis tradition wasn’t something to resent, or dread having to live up to. It was something to choose and embrace.
All of which makes De Minaur’s next match, against Spain’s finest product, Rafael Nadal, the most intriguing of the tournament so far, and possibly the most entertaining.
“I can’t wait to compete,” De Minaur said when he was asked about facing Rafa.
Win or lose, that’s all an Aussie tennis fan can ask.
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