This article was written by Nicole Hunt.
There’s only one sign you need if you want to cheer from the stands at Melbourne Park this week. ‘Go Alex!’ There’s a whole brigade of Alexes winning second round matches this week and most of them are Australian.
Let’s start with the one that’s not Australian, German Alexander Zverev, better known as Sacha. One of the new guard who’s climbed up the rankings over the last couple of years to challenge the champions and be the youngest player in the current men’s singles top ten. He had quite a scare last night with Frenchman Jeremy Chardy taking him to five sets but in the end Zverev was just too strong and will tomorrow play the next Alex on the list – Aussie, Alex Bolt.
As Zverev took to Margaret Court Arena after 8 o’clock last night, 26 year old Alex Bolt had already been on court since 4pm and there would still be a fifth and final set to play. Rain had hampered play during the afternoon but it did nothing to dampen Alex’s spirit, or his hair style, something Melbournians might recognise as being very much in the style of the Western Bulldogs’ Jason Johannissen. In fact, get behind him you Bulldogs fans!
There wasn’t a spare seat to be had in Court 3. Alex was two sets to one down against another Frenchman, Gilles Simon, and fought hard to get the fourth set to a tiebreak and stay in the match. He saved no less than four match points to eventually prevail in the tiebreak 10-8 in front of an absolutely rapturous crowd.
The final set was an armwrestle. Alex and Gilles traded breaks before Alex broke again to inch ahead at 5-4 and serve for the match. On the final point Alex hit a backhand winner that sent Court 3 into meltdown. The biggest win of his career, and a moment that he later described as the best experience of his life. May there be many more of them!
Meanwhile yet another Alex was on court over in Melbourne Arena. Alexei Popyrin, 19 years old and a wildcard entrant from Sydney was playing seventh seed Dominic Thiem and when he pulled ahead to win the first set 7-5 the noise was deafening even from outside the arena. He consolidated that with a second set win against a slowly wilting Thiem who later retired from the match citing illness. Alexei has a lot to be proud of and he’ll go into his next match against Lucas Pouille – yes, yet another Frenchman – with increasing self-belief. His supporters certainly believe in him, and they will be there with bells on.
Tonight we’ll be glued to Alex de Minaur as he plays prime time tennis on centre court against none other than Rafael Nadal. Alex appears to be the very definition of relaxed. He’s played Rafa before, he says, and so it is just another match and another chance to enjoy playing tennis. Sure. Just like Sunday social tennis, happens all the time. Yikes!
Alex will have a few things up his sleeve tonight, not the least of which will be a passionately supportive crowd. He also has a weaponry at his disposal that’s unparalleled in someone of just 19 years old. He has the full stationery drawer of shots to choose from. Everyone has a blue pen, a red pen and a few perhaps worn down but reliable pencils to choose from, but Alex has the lot – a blue, red and green pen, one of those multicolour ones, a full set of pencils and an industrial strength stapler that he’s borrowed from Lleyton Hewitt. He’s got the lot, and he usually knows which ones he needs to get the job done at any given time too, but that Hewitt-like tenacity is always on show.
There’s a kind of dance that goes on between Alex and the Australian crowd and when he spoke on court at the end of his previous match about how it was the crowd that gave him the motivation to knuckle down and get that five set victory, he’s utterly genuine. He thrives on motivation and positivity. He talks of trying hard to stay positive during a match in order to play his best tennis. He occasionally puts a towel over his head during breaks of play for a quiet solitary moment, and he doesn’t often try to engage the crowd in the same way that others do. But he talks to himself on court when he’s trying to find a little bit more energy and motivation, and the local crowd hears him and responds anyway. We recognize that he needs more from us, we give it to him, and he’s able to dig a little deeper, find a little more. There’s no doubt he’s going to have to dig very deep if he’s going to be victorious over Rafa tonight, but we’re there with him. He does not go into that arena alone.
So good luck to all the Alexes, today and tomorrow. We can be sure that at least one of them will make it through to the next round.