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Steve Flink: Fresh off a Title in Nottingham, De Minaur Is Ready for Wimbledon

Tennis fans Down Under were buoyant at the beginning of this year when one of their own, Alex de Minaur, commenced the 2018 ATP World Tour campaign with a flourish. Before he even turned 19 in February, the determined fellow from Sydney signaled to his countrymen— and the world at large— that his future could be boundlessly successful by turning in back-to-back, top-of-the-line performances leading up to the Australian Open. He made it to the penultimate round on the hard courts in Brisbane, and then got to the final of Sydney.

De Minaur built on the platform of that early season productivity, suffered some hard defeats thereafter along with some impressive victories, and now this appealing competitor is playing some of the finest tennis of his life. No one among the Top 100 in the ATP rankings has made more progress over the course of the 2018 season than de Minaur, who has moved up no fewer than 130 places from No. 208 at the end of 2017 to his current location at No. 78.

Over the past couple of weeks, he has found another gear in his game, reaching the final of a grass-court Challenger event in Surbiton before losing to Jeremy Chardy, taking the title last week on the lawns of Nottingham with a final-round triumph over Daniel Evans. Winning in Nottingham was a significant breakthrough for de Minaur, who had lost a combined total of five finals from 2016 into 2018—four at the Challenger level and one at the ATP 250 level.

I spoke with de Minaur a few days ago after his victory in Nottingham, and he was both delighted by what he had done there, and cautiously optimistic about the possibility of getting straight into the main draw of Wimbledon. Today, a wild card into the main draw of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament deservedly came his way. The 2016 Wimbledon juniors’ finalist will be exhilarated to make his men’s debut.

“I am two spots away from the main draw,” he mused the other day during our conversation, less than 48 hours before he was given the wild card. “The cutoff for the main draw at Wimbledon was actually a while back, when I was ranked No. 106. It would be incredibly special playing at Wimbledon. I remember playing the juniors a couple of years back. That was a whole other league for me, and a great experience playing on Court One in front of so many people. I really learned a lot from that, so it would be great to come out this year and actually play in the main draw of the men’s against high-level opponents in front of packed crowds and just enjoy every second of it.”

Although de Minaur came remarkably close to claiming that Wimbledon junior crown in 2016, he lost a hard-fought skirmish against none other than the charismatic left-hander Denis Shapovalov.

De Minaur recollects,” It is a match I have reflected on a fair bit. It is great to see how he is doing at the moment and I have also been able to put some strong wins together as well. It was a tough match with Shapovalov. Obviously I was disappointed to lose because it was the final. I really wanted to win, but reflecting on it now, it really built some confidence in me. I took it as a learning curve and tried to get better from that day forward, and here we are now.”

Here he is indeed. De Minaur has unmistakably found his form on the grass, and the regular match play he has experienced during the past fortnight has left the teenager upbeat as he approaches the rest of the season and, quite possibly, a decent run at Wimbledon.

Of his exploits at Surbition and Nottingham, de Minaur says, “I played really well the first week in making the final but wasn’t able to get the title. Then, when I made the final in Nottingham, I knew that a couple of finals this year had not gone my way, so I just decided to take it easy here. I told myself before the match with Evans that I was going to remain calm throughout the whole match and that really helped me. I managed to see things clearly and play some good tennis when I needed it.”

Clearly, his extraordinary results Down Under in January in both Brisbane and Sydney set the stage for a big season for de Minaur in 2018. Had he not made such a significant impact at those tournaments, he would not be where he is today.

He explains, “It was a combination of everything, including the hard work I put in during the preseason and all the hours on court and off court. Obviously, playing in front of your home crowds really does a lot for your level. Just stringing those wins together, I was feeling very confident in my game and in myself. I was just trying to ride the momentum. It was huge for me what happened there because from then on it is has been all about trying to maintain it throughout the whole year.”

And yet, sustaining high standards and winning with regularity week in and week out is no facile feat for the likes of de Minaur. He had a relatively tough time over the next couple of months after Sydney, although he did reach a Challenger final on the clay in Alicante, Spain. Yet he is realistic and sensible about what transpired in that stretch of the season.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “it is a very long year. The tennis season is pretty much ten months of the year. I went through a patch where obviously I didn’t get as many wins as I would have wanted to, or play at the same level I had at the start of the season, but I just kept telling myself that the level is there and it will come back. It is a long year so it is all about not putting too much pressure on myself, enjoying what I am doing, and trying to get better each day. I feel I have done that.”

Most authorities would concur with that assessment. The fact remains that de Minaur has demonstrated that he is on the verge of establishing himself against even the best players in the sport. In a Davis Cup contest against Sascha Zverev back in February, the Australian lost to the German in a fifth-set tiebreaker. That match left a lasting impression on de Minaur, and all who witnessed it.

“That was definitely one of the best days of my life,” he asserts. “Being able to represent my country and play in front of a packed crowd against an opponent like him, and being up a break in the fifth, even though I wasn’t able to get the win, it was still just an incredible day for me. It was a heartbreaking loss but I enjoyed every second of it on court. I was really happy with how tough I was because it was a long match with grueling rallies. But I managed to stick with him the whole way. It was probably the longest match I have ever played, but I was very proud of how I played. All of the hard work that I have put in paid off in that match.”

That has been the case elsewhere as well. The dedication of de Minaur has surely been one of the chief reasons why he is succeeding so handsomely this year. But another primary factor in his growth as a competitor has irrefutably been the encouragement and inspirational guidance of Australian Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt. De Minaur can’t say enough about his countryman’s role in his growth as a tennis player.

“He has been such a big help to me,” de Minaur says of Hewitt. “I have tried to learn everything I can from him. Every day he is around, you learn something new. I am really appreciative of everything he has done for me. He has helped me to believe in myself and my game.”

Asked how often he crosses paths with Hewitt and works with his mentor, de Minaur says, “He comes around the bigger tournaments and I try to hit with him as much as I can. It depends on when both of our schedules meet. Lleyton was so competitive and all of the energy he had on court is something I try to put in placed in my game. That is probably what Lleyton brings out in me. It is great to see him getting so fired up on the sidelines. Sometimes I think he gets even more fired up from the sidelines than he did when he was actually playing. It is fun being around him. He pushes me to the edge. I have learned from him that you have got to push yourself to 150%.”

Meanwhile, de Minaur values the degree of support that has come his way from compatriots like Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. He does not take their high regard for him lightly.

De Minaur says, “I have been with everyone in a Davis Cup environment. I know Kyrgios and Kokkinakis quite well. They have tried to help me out, especially when I was an ‘Orange Boy’ in Davis Cup. They have always believed in my game and have always had this belief in me. They always believed I had the level to make the transition from the Challenger tour to the ATP tour. Whenever we meet at tournaments we always try to hit with each other and get better together. I have learned a lot from those guys.”

But regardless of which individuals have provided the most motivation or assistance to de Minaur, he realizes that his priorities will ultimately determine how much he improves and how far he goes. In turn, his long-term success will depend partially on his physicality.

Asked if he recently had a growth spurt—something I learned from some friends who have followed him closely over the last couple of years—de Minaur confirms, “Yes, that is very true, I am about 182 centimeters tall now. I should be going through another growth spurt shortly. That is what I have been told. Probably the biggest thing for me the last couple of years has been the extra height. I have been able to get more pop on my serve. It is really important these days to have a good serve. That is something I have really worked on. If you don’t have a good serve, you can get found out pretty easily.”

On that point, de Minaur is on target. He knows how to evaluate what matters in his game. His clarity of mind is unmistakable. His sense of who he is and how far he can go in this game is apparent.

He is excited about being No. 5 at the moment in the ATP Race to Milan, the elite eight player event for the best 21-and-under players in the world, saying, “ At the end of the day, It would be great to make it into Milan.”

I concluded the interview by asking Alex de Minaur about his most significant short-and long- term aspirations.

He said, “Probably at this stage the goal for me would be the Top 50. I don’t know when that will happen. The goal for me at the beginning of the year was to be ranked Top 100, and I was happy I was able to accomplish that. My long-term goal is to get as high as possible in the rankings, and to improve my game each day. If I am able to do that, my ranking should get better and better. The other thing that is important for me is to find a balance between being too serious and taking it easy. I managed to find that balance in the final of Nottingham, and I will try to keep on doing that for the rest of my career.”

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