Humility is a personality trait often valued more highly than any other. So to is a willingness to work and improve. What an athlete lacks in physical talent can be compensated for by a gladiatorial ferocity on the court. And genuine, respectful modesty upon completion of a match will win as many fans as victory. It is that combination of fire and humility that has made Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic so admired across the world.
And it is the lack of these qualities in Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios has led to their growing unpopularity among the sport’s fans and pundits. Indeed, the lack of respect for the sport, the fans, officials and its proud history has created a negative perception of Kyrgios and Tomic and led to assumptions that Australian tennis players are spoiled. So much so, that despite their boisterous claims in press conferences and on social media, they achieve little.
A new icon
Lleyton Hewitt, Australia’s last great tennis champion, was loved thanks to his fighting spirit. He embodied the ideal of the Australian tennis player: the tough, hard working underdog willing to fight and claw for every point. But since his retirement and the rise of a new generation, that ideal has been sullied, with Tomic and Kyrgios the main offenders after their repeated failures to compete at an acceptable standard on the sport’s biggest stages.
But, in Alex De Minaur, Australian men’s tennis may have found a worthy new hero to take up Hewitt’s mantle. One who may be able to change the public’s view of Australian male players. He made his Grand Slam bow in Melbourne last year and earned his first win after battling past Gerard Melzer in five sets. Unsurprisingly thanks to his small stature, electric foot speed and never-say-die attitude he quickly drew comparisons to a young Lleyton Hewitt.
This year he became the centre of attention throughout the Australian summer of tennis in 2018, as he roared to a semifinal in Brisbane and a final in Sydney. Throughout he played tennis of the highest order and scored wins over stellar names such as Milos Raonic, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez. Those efforts caught up to him in a valiant loss to Tomas Berdych in the first round of the Australian Open, where he looked to be struggling badly with fatigue.
But his performances were rewarded nonetheless by Davis Cup Captain Hewitt who selected De Minaur for Australia’s Davis Cup tie with Germany in early February. He faced an immediate challenge against world #4 Alexander Zverev on the first day of the tie, but played his best tennis yet to stand up to the German’s power. At one point he held a 3-0 lead in the fifth set, but ultimately Zverev came back to win 7-5 4-6 4-6 6-3 7-6 in just over four hours.
Green and Gold Pride
What quickly became evident to Australia’s tennis watching public was De Minaur’s willingness to represent, and to suffer and fight, for his country on the world stage. He spoke enthusiastically of the time he spent as a water boy throughout Australia’s 2017 Davis Cup ties, and described the opportunity to represent his country as a dream come true. For De Minaur, there was no greater honour than wearing the green and gold of Australia.
Nick Kyrgios had appeared disinterested and out of his depth when given Davis Cup responsibilities as a teenager, although in fairness, he has now become one of his nation’s finest competitors. But De Minaur took every opportunity to learn and grow throughout the process from the get go. And the now banished Bernard Tomic refused to even make room in his schedule for Davis Cup. De Minaur had no such concerns.
Indeed, his enthusiasm for the sport, his country and the Davis Cup competition have defined what has been a breakout season for De Minaur.One that has seen him journey towards and ultimately inside the top 100 in the ATP rankings. His love for the competition has been further illustrated by his vocal opposition to the proposed Davis Cup changes for 2019, which many believe would destroy the uniqueness of the 150-year-old competition.
An area where many players come undone is the ability to overcome adversity, which comes in all shapes and sizes in professional tennis. Many niggling injuries inevitably arise over an 11-month season, players often feel sluggish travelling between different time zones and switching between playing surfaces. But the best of the best are able to play through such problems and find, if not their best tennis, a level good enough to win matches even when feeling less than 100%.
A longstanding criticism of both Kyrgios and Tomic has been their unwillingness to compete in matches when they are not playing at their highest level, whether that be due to an injury concern, a mental lapse or just a lack of motivation. But De Minaur has thus far shown an admirable competitive spirit, despite often having been plagued by abdominal issues over his first two seasons as a touring professional.
In fact, the Sydney-born, Alicante-raised teenager has shown a willingness to play through pain that borders on the reckless. During his heart-breaking Davis Cup loss to Zverev, De Minaur tore an abdominal muscle that left him on the sidelines for six weeks. But learning to better manage his body should come with experience. Learning to develop a competitive attitude is a far-less simple process and fortunately one De Minaur looks to have already undergone.
Competing to the very last ball is rapidly becoming De Minaur’s trademark, and he showed it again in saving four match points before rallying to defeat Andrey Rublev in the Washington semifinals. And whilst the gulf that still exists between him and the game’s best may have been ruthlessly exposed by Nadal at Wimbledon and Zverev in Washington, if he continues to work and compete, he will close it rapidly.
Now inside the top 50 following his breakthrough week in Washington, the Australian will hope to continue to prove himself on tennis’ biggest stages. If he does so, his modesty and respect, both for his peers and those who have gone before him, will hold him in good stead as his career progresses. It may even help him to become the newest icon of Australian tennis.