Tennis

A quarter-finals appearance at the US Open was Alex de Minaur’s best on-court performance to date, but the world No. 23 rates making it through the mental challenges and disruptions of 2020 as his biggest achievement. By Linda Pearce.

Demon shows his fighting spirit

Australian Alex de Minaur in action during his semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov at the European Open in Antwerp in October.
Credit: Laurie Dieffembacq / Belga Mag via AFP

While reluctant cooking novice Alex de Minaur estimates it takes him twice as long as the recipe suggests to prepare his humble go-to dish, chilli con carne, one ingredient the world No. 23 has had in abundance this year is time. Way too much of it, sometimes. Both at his Spanish base in Alicante during the stretches in lockdown he likens to “house arrest”, and in hotel rooms enduring long weeks in tournament biosecurity bubbles that have proved challenging for his mental health.

“I had a couple of tough moments, a couple of tough weeks,” de Minaur says. “It was a difficult situation to get used to, the whole bubble life, and it’s something I kind of had to get my head around: that it wasn’t about enjoying it, it was more about just going in and doing your job. So as soon as I could get back to my roots and focus on what’s really important – and that’s just going out there playing tennis matches and trying to compete every single point – I managed to string a couple of matches together, which definitely gave me some confidence.”

For the nation’s top-ranked male tennis player, another stint in quarantine beckons in mid-January ahead of a very different summer of ’21. After a marathon negotiation process, details were finally confirmed this week of a February 8 start to the Australian Open. International players will arrive from mid-January and are expected to spend their first fortnight in Victoria confined to their rooms except for the time each day when they are permitted at Melbourne Park to hit, train, eat.

Local players already in the country will be exempt, of course, with the likes of John Millman, Jordan Thompson and Daria Gavrilova having already completed stints in standard (read stricter) hotel quarantine after returning home in recent months. All had joined the tennis tour when it resumed prior to the US Open in September and continued at the rescheduled clay-court swing in Europe. Notably, though, women’s world No. 1 Ash Barty and men’s No. 45 Nick Kyrgios were among those who chose not to venture offshore at all once the pandemic escalated.

De Minaur retreated to Alicante to be with his family and long-time coach, Adolfo Gutierrez, following the first Covid-19 domino that was the Indian Wells cancellation in March, and again after a 23-match season ended in Bulgaria in November. De Minaur’s next steps on Australian soil will thus be his first since an abdominal injury denied the devastated 21-year-old a fourth main draw appearance at Melbourne Park in January.

“I guess that showed in a way how the year was gonna be,” says de Minaur, joking that his misfortune set the tone for the grim events that followed, with Wimbledon among the casualties. “I had basically been doing all the hard work to hopefully be able to play my best tennis in my home slam in front of my home crowd. So it was a very disappointing start, and then obviously we had this whole Covid situation. So it’s been a complicated year, to say the least.”

While de Minaur’s best individual result came via his maiden grand slam quarter-final at Flushing Meadows in New York, he doesn’t rate that breakthrough as his best achievement for 2020. “Obviously the US Open was a great tournament for me. But for how the year could have gone and how it was looking, I managed to kind of get my head together and especially at the end of the year sort a couple of things out, and managed to finish in a spot which is not too bad. Obviously not what I wanted at the start of the year, but given where I was halfway through I’m happy with managing to salvage a pretty rough year, and hopefully it sets me up for a big 2021.”

A quirky guide to de Minaur’s success this summer may be on his top lip. A poor excuse for a moustache featured not just in New York, but also during his runs to the Atlanta title and Basel finals in 2019. What he admits is more superstition than a style statement will not be attempted in Melbourne. “No, I guarantee you that won’t be happening.”

Really? “Look, if I feel I’m in need of some serious luck, I might bring it out,” he adds, laughing. “But I’m hoping I’ll be prepared to have a great result without the need of a moustache.”

The boyish, lightweight de Minaur would prefer to rely on a beefed-up game. Often likened to Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt for his exceptional will, wheels and warrior mentality, the 183-centimetre speedster admits he would rather blast opponents off the court than run them off their feet, but says he has to work with what he has, physically.

Tennis Australia’s head of professional tennis, Wally Masur, sees the similarities to former world No. 1 Hewitt, too.

“You’ve got players who are great strikers of the ball, and you’ve got great tennis players, and Alex, he’s a great tennis player in that he really understands the game, he knows how to counter-punch, he knows how to defend, he’s got all the skills, he can slice, he can volley,” says Masur. “He’s a very, very clever tennis player, and that holds him in good stead. But he has to fight, and again there’s that comparison with Lleyton: quite often he’s just playing bigger, stronger guys with more firepower so he’s got to be on … Fortunately Alex seems to find that switch 99 times out of 100.”

Hence the importance of his ongoing work with the sports psychologist who helped pull de Minaur out of a dark place when expectations had built but his performances stagnated in mid-2019. Extra counselling was needed in Europe this year, but for different reasons. “During that time I wasn’t obviously in the best headspace, so we had to knuckle down and get my head straight,” the one-time world No. 2 junior says. “It took a couple more hours than normal, but we got there.”

While he concedes many others were less fortunate, months of home lockdown were stifling, and the fast-twitch, slightly hyperactive de Minaur found himself dancing on TikTok with his sisters and posting videos of golf tricks to help pass the days. Then, when he was back on tour, the positive Covid-19 test of Benoît Paire on the eve of the US Open, and the confined-to-their-rooms consequences for seven players the Frenchman had mixed with in hotel card games, meant it seemed safer not to mingle.

“You don’t want to go down that road where someone you’re in contact with can test positive and then you get brought down with them. We managed to, I guess at the end of the year, gain a bit more confidence in the other guys and hang out a bit more, and it was definitely a bit better. But at the start there was so many uncertainties that you never knew what to do exactly.”

Another change has been the need for de Minaur to complete a rare pre-season away from the warm weather and fraternal environment of his Australian birthplace, and the thought of another stint in quarantine is understandably daunting – despite the concessions. “I mean, if you give me five hours or no hours [onsite], I’ll definitely take the five hours! Look, it’s a very tough decision for both parties, because Australia’s doing so well with the pandemic at the moment. Obviously as players you wouldn’t want to be doing quarantine, but it’s understandable.

“It’s not gonna be easy, that’s for sure, but it’s just what we’re going to have to do. You can’t dwell on it. I think we’re just going to be looking forward to freedom when the two weeks are done, and to be able to play the Aussie summer – that’s the big bonus. We’re going to have to manage, get by, survive the first two weeks, and then we can kind of put 2020 behind and enjoy 2021.”

For de Minaur that will ideally take him out of the kitchen and back on the road, for there has been no joy in staying still, whatever else it has taught him. “It’s not part of my DNA,” he says. “I’m so used to travelling from a young age that I haven’t spent a lot of time in the same place and I kind of get a bit antsy. But I have learnt that if need be, I can cook. I can clean up, I can do all these things, and it’s a good skill set to have, I guess, in case we have another pandemic. Hopefully I don’t have to use it again, though. Let’s just say that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Demon spirit".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.