Tennis

With Alexei Popyrin steaming towards a top-50 world ranking, all eyes are on the winner of the boys’ singles at the 2017 French Open, and his imminent return to Roland Garros. By Linda Pearce.

Rising tennis star Alexei Popyrin

Alexei Popyrin during his match against Rafael Nadal in Madrid in early May.
Credit: Mutsu Kawamori / AFLO / Alamy

Warning: prepare for a dad joke. An original, at least. Alexei Popyrin, Australia’s first boys’ singles champion at Roland Garros since Phil Dent 49 years earlier, was still savouring that 2017 achievement when his father, Alex, announced he had received an offer on his son’s behalf. A free Lamborghini plus an apartment. Just one condition: Sydney-born Alexei, who had lived in Dubai from the ages of eight to 10 and in Spain and France thereafter, would need to switch his allegiance to the United Arab Emirates.

Gotcha. “I said, ‘No way!’ I said, ‘Never, ever – no matter what they give me I’m always going to represent Australia,’ ” Popyrin recalls. “And that’s still how I feel to this day.” His father shares similar memories of the outraged “No, no, no” reaction to his cheeky prank. “He was so angry! Alexei is such a diehard Aussie.”

Despite a relatively low profile in his homeland, Popyrin jnr is also a 21-year-old who is rated among the sport’s most exciting emerging talents, ranked No. 4 nationally, and the fourth-youngest man among the world’s top 62 on the eve of another pandemic-affected French Open. That’s all in the public domain. Included among the lesser-known elements in the Alexei Popyrin story are a foreign correspondent/Media Watch host and a former English football international, plus just how close he was to choosing an American college education over a pro tennis career.

The tale begins amid the tumult of early 1990s Moscow where, despite running a successful air cargo business, Kenyan-born and United States-raised businessman Alexey Popyrin and his wife, Elena, were concerned for their future and looking to start a new life elsewhere with eight-year-old daughter Anna. A childhood pal, Gregory Klumov, was married to journalist Monica Attard, who had been posted to Russia by the ABC, and the Popyrins were considering their options.

Italy? Elena was keen but her husband wanted to escape Europe. The US? Not possible, after failure in the green card lottery. Alexey’s sister was in Sweden, where his parents would eventually follow. Or there was Australia, where a cousin had immigrated to Brisbane, and their friends had recently returned.

With the help of the skilled migration program that enabled Popyrin snr to enrol for a PhD in the faculty of economics at Sydney University, the family arrived for a trial stint, living in a rented apartment with donated furniture. “The moment we landed we thought, ‘What an amazing place. The colours are so vibrant, the air is so fresh and the people are so friendly,’ ” the businessman recalls. “It was 25 years ago, but I still very vividly remember the day when it all happened, because it’s such a dramatically different place to where we came from.”

Son Alexei was born in 1999, Anthony – now on a US tennis scholarship at the Arizona Christian University – a year later, and Sonia in 2007. “I know they left Moscow when they were quite young, without any money, and they were saving money in a jar to have a nice dinner at McDonald’s on the weekend. That’s what I’ve been told,” says Alexei. “As I got older, as I started playing tennis, I know that they were there for me no matter what, I know the sacrifices that they made for me were immense, and that all still fuels me to be able to repay them, even though I know I don’t need to.”

Having found an old racquet in the garage with which to have a hit against a wall, Popyrin’s first tennis memory is of a session of what was then called PeeWee (now Hot Shots) Tennis. The shy kid didn’t enjoy it much. “I always wanted to be around my mum, and unfortunately she left and then I was alone with all the kids and the coaches,” Popyrin says. “But I think I did pretty well, because my mum tells me that the coach came up and told her that we need to find a ‘real’ tennis coach because I’ve got some talent.”

On a friend’s recommendation, young Alexei would soon end up at the Kim Warwick Academy, where he immediately impressed the owner, the 1980 Australian Open finalist. The 2008 move to Dubai was business-related, and although soccer was the lanky lad’s other sporting passion, height was a factor in Popyrin’s decision to choose tennis. A teacher at his school in Dubai, former English Premier League star and England international Carlton Palmer, had urged the keen Everton fan to pursue soccer. “So my mum said, ‘Just go watch him play tennis one time’, and he came and watched one of the practices and said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to keep him in tennis.’ And ever since then I’ve been playing tennis.”

There have been several key moments en route. One was being thrashed at an under-10 tournament in Croatia in 2009 that prompted much angst and the family’s next relocation, to Alicante in Spain – already home to another emerging Aussie named Alex de Minaur – with the aim of beating the Spanish youngster who had thrashed him on European red clay. Another was while warming up with a friend at a Futures event in Egypt in February 2017, which was the catalyst for an invitation to join the Mouratoglou academy near Nice in south-east France, where the Popyrins – minus Anthony and Sydney-based Anna, who just gave birth to her first child – remain.

“My mum was my coach at the time and it was kind of rough being a stubborn teenager and having your mum as a coach,” says the 196-centimetre right-hander, laughing. “There was a lot of fighting happening on the court, there was a lot of arguments, so I wanted to have my own coach and I think my mum agreed.” He was given the name of the head of the pro team at Mouratoglou’s, Ben Ebrahimzadeh, now his personal coach. A free two-week trial came through a common sponsor, “and lucky for me I impressed them, and ever since then it was a match made in heaven with me and the academy”.

Within months, a straight-sets defeat of Nicola Kuhn had delivered the prestigious Roland Garros junior title. After struggling with his tennis earlier that year, Popyrin had been tempted by approaches from multiple US universities. “I was, say, 70 per cent that I wanted to go to college, because I hadn’t had the best results,” he says, admitting a dual scholarship deal with brother Anthony was particularly tempting. “But then winning the French Open opened my eyes a little bit. That made me realise that I really could make it to the top. You always have that belief that you can make it, but it’s just about making the smartest choice, for your future … It was a safe option for me to go to college, but after the French Open, it was a safer option for me to go pro.”

Starting with success in his next Futures event, the ascent has since been swift. In 2019, Popyrin reached the Australian Open’s third round, made his Davis Cup debut, and won a match at the three other majors. Despite defending his Melbourne Park ranking points the following year, it was at the end of what became a challenging resumption from the pandemic pause that he decided to forget about the latter months and devote himself to a preseason building his strength and endurance plus a calmer and more positive mindset. The instant reward: saving four match points against then world No. 15 David Goffin at his home slam in February to record the best win of his career.

Former top-25 singles player, doubles great and Australian Open chief executive Paul McNamee has long liked what he has seen. “I mean, his game is sending him to top 10, in my opinion, because he’s got the Spanish 1-2 punch, which is the big serve and big forehand. His backhand he probably has to improve a little bit, but he volleys pretty well. Moves well. Big guy. Ticks the boxes. Not a classic clay-courter, but he’s good on every court.”

Popyrin’s maiden ATP title came at the Singapore Open in March before he narrowly failed to upset world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev on another hardcourt, in Miami. While the switch to red clay has been less fruitful, the defeat of rising Italian star Jannik Sinner in Madrid was another illustration of his versatility. And if clay is his least preferred surface, then Popyrin still has that imposing weaponry, plus a much-improved backhand and a determination to develop the tactical nous to succeed on the demanding terre battue.

While the best ever clay-courter, 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, schooled him 6-3, 6-3 in the next round in Madrid, Popyrin won the first seven points as well as praise from the Spaniard for his power and potential. The balance to find now is between playing aggressively and the errors that come with going for too much. “Definitely I do need to lessen the mistakes a little bit because I can hit winners from basically anywhere on the court and I can hit mistakes from anywhere on the court, also,” Popyrin says.

Meanwhile, experience is being gained. And Popyrin will need every bit of it when he meets Nadal again in the first round at Roland Garros. “I think my game is good enough to play at the top; it’s just the little tweaks here and there,” he says. “I think I can go as far as I’ve dreamt of going. I’ve had goals ever since I was a little kid to make it to world No. 1, to win grand slams, to win an Australian Open, a home grand slam, and I believe I can do it. But I know that there’s a lot of hard work to be done still.”

As that happens, an Olympic debut in Tokyo potentially beckons, pending retention of that national top-four ranking on the June 14 qualification date. Alexei Popyrin is keen. Super keen. He is also a likeable young Australian, one without a Lamborghini, whose tennis progress nevertheless continues to accelerate.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Pop art".

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