A Man Possessed: The 'demon' impressed in back-to-back Australian Open tune-ups

At two of this year’s domestic Australian Open preparatory tournaments, something unusual happened: a Sydney-born teenager beat a bunch of pretty good players. Regrettably, this adolescent’s name—Alex de Minaur—drifted slightly out of focus as soon as the main event commenced in Melbourne. Arriving in advance of a fortnight that spawned Hyeon Chung’s transformation into a Grand Slam semi-finalist, Tennys Sandgren’s eloquently fumbled attempts to convince reporters that he hasn’t sacrificed an ounce of personal integrity on the altar of his (recently denuded) Twitter feed, and the re-emergence of the debate about the ethicality of the Australian Open’s extreme heat policy, it was almost inevitable that de Minaur’s initially headline-grabbing mid-January results would get lost in the shuffle. Add to these events the fact that de Minaur’s Australian Open lasted only one round—he was unlucky enough to run into Tomas Berdych straight off the bat—and we had ourselves a (temporarily) forgotten man.

Recall that the first Australian city de Minaur set alight last month was Brisbane. To begin his run at the Queensland capital’s ATP 250 event, de Minaur straight-setted Steve Johnson, now the 5th ranked American in the world by virtue of Ryan Harrison’s sudden impulse to get his act together (more on him later). Awaiting de Minaur in the last 16 was Milos Raonic, the Canadian resuming his playing activity after shutting down a torrid, injury-blighted 2017 season.

Raonic had been absent from the tour since retiring—with just one game completed—from a round of 16 ‘match’ against Yuichi Sugita at the Japan Open back in October. Don’t let that fool you, though. Despite the rustiness that continues to seep into every aspect of his game, 2016 Brisbane champion Raonic is still likely to outmatch players incapable of getting to grips with his serve as ably as de Minaur. The Alicante-based Aussie dished out the straight sets treatment to Raonic in a shade over 90 minutes, losing just eight games and requiring no tiebreaks in the process. How’s that for composure?

Next, de Minaur crushed a second flatlining American, Michael Mmoh, 6-4, 6-0, licensing him to have a go at eliminating a third player from the United States in the semi-finals. Although de Minaur came within three points of doing exactly that in the second set tiebreak, Harrison’s edge in experience ultimately tipped a tight three-setter in his favour. But in that match, as in all the others he played in Brisbane, de Minaur exemplified why he is already a handful and a half to deal with for some of the most established names on the ATP tour.

From watching de Minaur play, his strengths—deft hands on the service return, a well-honed transition game and incisive anticipation skills of the sort seemingly hardwired into every counterpuncher—are immediately apparent. His groundstrokes, still rough-hewn and a touch snappy, will become more dependable as the rest of his game improves. De Minaur’s strokes do, however, carry the same surprise element as those of Alexandr Dolgopolov, to take one example. Power explodes from both wings in a way that belies the limitations of a slight, 5′ 11″ frame. Something else noteworthy about de Minaur is that like his mentor Lleyton Hewitt, he doesn’t shy away from wearing his heart on his sleeve. The 18-year-old is known to unseal a celebratory pomp or two during the heat of battle, replete with exclamations of ‘come-on’, fist pumps, and the like.

The semi-final de Minaur reached in Brisbane was his first at tour level; a sure sign of the world No.139’s hunger to hasten his progress is that it took all of eight days for him to top that achievement. He did so by reaching the final of the Sydney International, thus capping off his second upset-seeking expedition in as many weeks. Without flinching, de Minaur tore through the first three rounds, swatting aside Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez and Damir Džumhur as if he, not they, were ranked inside the top 50.

Eliminating France’s Benoit Paire proved to be a trial that stretched de Minaur further than his previous three matches combined. Dismayed if nothing else but inwardly after conceding six of the first ten games, de Minaur found something extra in the second and third sets, eventually ridding himself of Paire in one hour and 50 minutes. That win gave rise both to de Minaur’s maiden ATP final and his first meeting with Daniil Medvedev, a rangy Russian baseline basher whose ranking has seen strong upward movement lately. In a contest littered with errors—the two ‘Next-Gen’ stars each racked up at least twice as many unforced mistakes as winners—de Minaur was level pegging with Medvedev after two sets, fell perilously behind in the third, suddenly threatened a comeback and then… Lost. Intuitively, it’s difficult for me to shake the feeling that a first ATP title is in de Minaur’s immediate future; still, he must play more cleanly off the ground in subsequent finals to claim what rightfully should be his.

The main challenge for de Minaur going forward is to prove that he can play just as well around the world as he does in Australia. Oftentimes in the case of inexperienced players, it can be far more daunting to face older, higher-ranked counterparts without being able to rely on home-court advantage; for instance, see how Denis Shapovalov’s tour-level win/loss record in North America outstrips his corresponding numbers at tournaments he entered elsewhere. Let’s wait and see if the de Minaur that shows up to play in the far-flung locales of the ATP tour is the same de Minaur that beats top 50 players routinely in Australia. With the way his 2018 is going, it won’t be long before the extent of de Minaur’s capacity for global giant-killing comes to light.