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A year ago, Alex de Minaur was among the most improved players in tennis. The earnest and unwavering Australian skyrocketed from his 2017 year-end ranking of No. 208 all the way up to No. 31. After securing his first ATP singles title in the early stages of 2019 in Sydney, de Minaur advanced to No. 24. Despite a third-round Australian Open drubbing at the hands of Rafael Nadal, he seemed entirely capable of attaining Top 15 status the way he was playing.

But the Aussie fell into a debilitating slump. At one stage this season he did not win a match in four consecutive tournaments; he was also hindered by a groin injury that weighed on his mind and limited his physical capabilities.

However, the 20-year-old sweepingly turned his year around this past week at the BB&T Atlanta Open. He dropped only one set all week, won an incredible 116 of 123 first-serve points, never faced a break point, and capped off a stirring run by upending Taylor Fritz in the final, 6-3, 7-6 (2). That victory was abundant proof that de Minaur is now performing at a level that almost surely surpasses anything he had displayed before.

After winning 116 of 123 first-serve points, Alex de Minaur is back

After winning 116 of 123 first-serve points, Alex de Minaur is back

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De Minaur lost just seven points on his first serve all week in Atlanta. (Getty Images)

I watched de Minaur's performance against Fritz and marveled at it all. He was finding the corners with his first serve at speeds ranging largely from 116 to 127 MPH, and his second serve was consistently deep and reliable. Fritz was hard-pressed throughout the skirmish to do any damage with his returns as de Minaur was unshakable on his delivery, as he had been all week.

But it was not simply the quality of his serving that was allowing the young Australian to control the tempo of this contest and keep Fritz essentially at bay over the course of both sets. More importantly, he backed up both his first and second serves with unerring ground strokes, excellent depth and outstanding ball control. He set the table with the serve but backed it up by devouring shots off both sides that kept Fritz frequently off balance and ill at ease. It was a clinically sound performance from beginning to end, and one that left his American adversary befuddled about what it would take to penetrate de Minaur’s defenses.

The first set of that clash was one-sided in favor of the young Australian. From the outset, Fritz was struggling on serve because de Minaur was making so many remarkable returns on the stretch. After three taxing holds, Fritz slowly succumbed to de Minaur, who held at love for 3-3, broke the 21-year-old in a hard-fought deuce game for 4-3, held at love for 5-3 and broke at 15 on a double fault to seal the set. The Aussie captured 17 of 21 points in that four-game stretch—he made only two unforced errors in the nine-game set, ten less than his adversary.

De Minaur backed up both his first and second serves with unerring ground strokes, excellent depth and outstanding ball control. (Getty Images)

And yet, despite being outplayed across the board in that first set, Fritz lifted his game thereafter and served awfully well in the second. In six service games, he conceded only four points. But despite a brief opening with de Minaur serving at 3-3 and the score locked at deuce in the seventh game, Fritz did not make any traction. A composed and confident de Minaur served an ace on that point and held on to maintain his advantage.

When the No. 3 seed double faulted on the first point of the second set tiebreak, Fritz had a chance to perhaps impose himself meaningfully and eventually claim the set. But he missed two first serves in a row, lost both points, and de Minaur never looked back. He collected seven of eight points to close out the tiebreak and take the match comprehensively.

“I’ve been playing great tennis and felt like if I could keep it all together, the good results will come,” de Minaur said in Atlanta. “This is a week that will really help me out.”

So where does de Minaur go from here? I am very encouraged about his prospects. He has the opportunity  to make serious inroads in the sport. There are no holes in his game, he is quietly ferocious, and is immensely ambitious. As long as the 20-year-old stays healthy, the immediate path ahead will be uncluttered. He should be able to string together some good hard-court results on the way to the US Open, as he did a year ago when he made it to the final of Washington. If he wins his share of matches in the weeks ahead, he will be a Top 20 seed in New York.

After winning 116 of 123 first-serve points, Alex de Minaur is back

After winning 116 of 123 first-serve points, Alex de Minaur is back

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The young Aussie shot up nine spots in the rankings on Monday to No. 25. (Getty Images)

“I don’t think I could start the American hard-court season any better than this,” said de Minaur. “I’m happy with where I am and enjoying every day. I can’t wait to get back on court and keep improving.”

Depending on his draw at the last major of the season, de Minaur could well find himself still in the hunt during the second week. He will not be intimidated by opponents with higher rankings, more diversified resumes and larger reputations. Examining the players ranked outside the Top 10, he is one of the very best. He moves with unmistakable alacrity, strikes the ball cleanly off both sides and has a belief in his serve now that he never had before. He is becoming a formidable match player. He has a point-in, point-out intensity that reflects a growing awareness of himself and his potential. Any rival who now takes him lightly does so at his own peril.

De Minaur is back where he belongs, climbing the ladder of success with clear convictions, practicing his craft productively and convincingly, zeroing in on his targets unhesitatingly. The view here is that he will certainly finish the 2019 season stationed inside the Top 15, and quite possibly land among the Top 10.

“I’m really proud of where I am after suffering a tough injury. I’m back where I want to be,” said de Minaur. "To start the year with a bang and then be slowed down by injuries… you expect your level to be right there once you come back, but you have to slowly grind your way back.”

After winning 116 of 123 first-serve points, Alex de Minaur is back

After winning 116 of 123 first-serve points, Alex de Minaur is back