Australia continued its love affair with Alex de Minaur on Wednesday night as our top men’s player added some fighting five-set drama to his promising Australian Open run.
The 19-year-old Sydneysider dug deep to topple Swiss qualifier Henri Laaksonen to set up a Friday showdown with Rafael Nadal in the third round.
After a controversial week for Australian tennis, sports lovers are lapping up the fresh-faced youngster who only got his driver’s license late last year.
“It’s a different position for me, a position I’m not really used to,” said de Minaur, of his new-found fame. “It’s sort of come out of nowhere. It’s been an unbelievable year. I’m enjoying every second of it.
“I’m just trying to focus on myself, on going out there on court and competing, having fun. Nothing has changed for me.”
Six months after being handed a grand slam lesson by Nadal, de Minaur will aim to turn the tables on the Spanish great. Nadal walloped the teenager 6-1 6-2 6-4 in their maiden meeting at Wimbledon last year.
“Whenever he steps out on court, he always has that presence. No one can take that away from him,” de Minaur said of the 17-time grand slam winner. “I’ve just got to go out there, try to focus on my side of the court, generally just go out there, have fun. Hopefully take it to him.”
Seeded 27 after only cracking the world’s top hundred last June, de Minaur has enjoyed a meteoric rankings rise, and is on a seven-game winning streak that included his first ATP title in Sydney.
That run looked in danger when Laaksonen came from two sets down to force the round two match into a deciding set.
But de Minaur rallied for a 6-4 6-2 6-7 (9-7) 4-6 6-3 triumph in three hours and 52 minutes.
While compatriots Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic have attracted negative headlines after round one Melbourne Park exits, de Minaur has garnered support with his fighting spirit.
“Every time I step out on court, I leave 150 per cent out there. That’s the bare minimum,” he said.
“You want the players in the locker room to know you as that kid that fights ‘til the end, has that never-say-die attitude.”
De Minaur is still getting used to the spotlight that comes with being Australia’s top-ranked male player but says he keeps a low-key routine. “I still go have an acai bowl in the morning. I do the same things a 19-year-old kid would do,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be in the position that I am, to be able to play the sport that I love every single day. I’m never taking that for granted.”
Nadal has knocked out Aussies James Duckworth and Matthew Ebden without dropping a set en route to the third round and said he wouldn’t be taking his younger opponent lightly.
“He’s a great player, young, playing with big confidence after winning matches. It will be a tough one,” the 31-year-old said.
De Minaur, who spent time growing up in Spain, said he recalled watching Nadal win his sole Australian Open on television in 2009.
“I think this is what you play for, to play the biggest guys and the best guys at the top of their level on the biggest stages,” he said.