Why Alex de Minaur and Ashleigh Barty are the fresh breaths of air Australian tennis badly needed

mastermind5991 Roar Guru

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    After recent controversies surrounding Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic over the past few years, Australian tennis badly needed a fresh breath of air – and that was provided in Sydney this week by Alex de Minaur and Ashleigh Barty.

    They may have lost their respective finals in the Harbour City to Daniil Medvedev and Angelique Kerber, but both vanquished opponents showed why they are destined for big things over the next 12 months with their strong performances over the past week.

    For De Minaur, reaching the final in Sydney came a week after he reached his first ATP World Tour semi-final in Brisbane, losing a three-set thriller against Ryan Harrison after having claimed the scalp of former world number three Milos Raonic in the second round.

    It looked as though his breakthrough was going to go up a notch when he took the opening set in the championship match against Medvedev for the loss of just one game.

    However, the 21-year-old Russian, whose most notable career victory came against Stan Wawrinka in the first round of Wimbledon last year, hit back to claim the second set before a double break saw him take a 4-0 lead in the last, and all hope de Minaur had of making a comeback was lost.

    But the Sydneysider, who has enjoyed the assistance of Lleyton Hewitt in his coaches’ box over the past fortnight, and is inspired by the NSW State of Origin team’s “Blue Wall” cry, would breathe life back into the contest, and all of a sudden it was five-all.

    However, Medvedev would break in the following game, and then served out the match to claim his first ATP World Tour title, after which he “apologised” to the fans for defeating their local hero.

    This evoked similar memories of when Marat Safin also apologised to the Australian public after defeating Hewitt in the final of the 2005 Australian Open (skip to 6:14 in the following video).

    On both occasions, it was a Russian facing an Australian favourite in the championship match and it was the local favourite which dominated to take the opening set 6-1, before the Russian enemy struck back.

    De Minaur’s ranking will continue to rocket up ahead of a tough first-round assignment against former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych at the Australian Open on Tuesday (Medvedev, for his part, plays another Australian, Thanasi Kokkinakis, in his opener today).

    He has overtaken Bernard Tomic, who dropped to 142nd in the world rankings after a horrid 2017 season, to become Australia’s second-highest ranked male tennis player at 127th, only behind Nick Kyrgios (17th).

    While somewhat unlikely, given he will have to quickly adjust to the demands of five-set tennis against an experienced player of Berdych’s calibre, a deep run at Melbourne Park could have him cracking the world’s top 100 by the end of this month.

    And if he continues with the impressive results over the first half of the season, there is every chance he could enter Wimbledon, where he was the junior runner-up to Denis Shapovalov in 2016, inside the top 50.

    Alex De Minaur

    (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

    The country’s highest-ranked female tennis player, Ashleigh Barty, also impressed in reaching a final on home soil for the first time, where she lost to the resurgent Angelique Kerber in straight sets.

    After a false start to her season whereby she lost her first round match against Lesia Tsurenko in Brisbane, the Ipswich native was quick to hit back, defeating Veronica Cepede Royg, Ellen Perez and Barbora Strycova on her way to a semi-final showdown against fellow Australian Daria Gavrilova.

    This set up a clash between the country’s two highest-ranked female tennis players to see which would become the first female finalist in Sydney since Alicia Molik defeated Samantha Stosur in the 2005 final.

    Eventually, Barty defeated the Russian-born Gavrilova in three sets, having to come from a set down to do so. However, some will attribute the result to Gavrilova suffering a meltdown after winning the first set; at one point, she was dealt a code violation for racquet abuse.

    Gavrilova suffered a similar meltdown at the 2016 Australian Open, losing a fourth-round match to Carla Suarez Navarro in three sets after having claimed the opener 6-0.

    Back to Barty now, and her victory over Gavrilova sent her into a championship showdown against Kerber, who was ranked world number one this time last year but suffered a spectacular fall from grace to drop outside the top 20 for the first time since 2012.

    Her annus horribilis ended with a loss to Barty at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China.

    But the German was determined to put a year from hell behind her and she started the season strongly, going undefeated in four singles matches at the Hopman Cup.

    In Sydney, she saved two match points to defeat Lucie Safarova in the first round and came from a set down to defeat Venus Williams in the second before scoring straight-sets victories over Dominika Cibulkova and Camila Giorgi to reach her first WTA final for the year.

    Her experience proved to be the difference as she reversed her season-ending loss to Barty from last year to claim her eleventh career title, but first since winning the 2016 US Open (a result which elevated her to world number one).

    Despite falling short in the final, Barty still won over the Australian tennis fans for the way she went about it, describing Kerber as someone she had looked up to when she started on the WTA Tour earlier this decade.

    Barty made the shock announcement a few years ago that she would take a break from the sport to pursue cricket before she decided to resume her tennis career in February 2016.

    A quarter-final showing in Nottingham, where she pushed top seed Karolina Pliskova to two tiebreak sets, was the first significant result in her comeback which saw her end the year ranked 271st.

    It was the following year in which her comeback would go up a notch, stretching Kerber to three sets in Brisbane and reaching the third round of the Australian Open for the first time.

    She would then win her first career title in Kuala Lumpur and reached two further finals during 2017, losing to Petra Kvitova and Caroline Garcia in Birmingham and Wuhan respectively.

    Ashleigh Barty

    She also claimed the scalps of Venus Williams, Johanna Konta, Agnieszka Radwanska and Pliskova during the second half of the year, eventually finishing the year as Australia’s top-ranked female tennis player at number 17.

    Now, she will enter the Australian Open, where her first match is against Aryna Sabalenka on Tuesday (a starting time for this match is yet to be determined), with high expectations on the back of a solid run in Sydney.

    The 21-year-old is projected to face world number one Simona Halep in the fourth round, should she get that far at any major for the first time.

    The impressive performances shown by de Minaur and Barty in Sydney over the past week have breathed life back into the state of Australian tennis, especially after the controversies encountered by Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic in the past few years, as well as the retirement of Lleyton Hewitt in January 2016 and the continuing decline of Samantha Stosur.

    Kyrgios had been hailed as “the next big thing” after upsetting world number one Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, and then reaching the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in 2015, but has since struggled to return to those heights since.

    The first major controversy of his career came during a match against Stan Wawrinka in August 2015, when he suggested that Thanasi Kokkinakis had engaged in an affair with Wawrinka’s girlfriend, Donna Vekic.

    Then, 14 months later, he copped a season-ending three-week suspension from the ATP World Tour for his bizarre performance in a loss against Mischa Zverev at the Shanghai Masters.

    The Canberran has since showed signs of a turnaround in his behaviour, winning the Brisbane International last week in front of plenty of fans and suggesting that he “loves playing in front of them even though sometimes they may not see it that way”.

    As for Bernard Tomic, well, what can you say?

    Bernard Tomic

    (Daniel Maurer/dpa via AP)

    After winning two Grand Slam titles at junior level (the 2008 Australian Open and 2009 US Open), and coming out of qualifying to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 2011, massive things were expected of him.

    However, the burden of being Australia’s next best hope got to him, and after achieving a career-high ranking of 17th in 2016, he crashed and burned to finish last year ranked 142nd.

    In fact, as this article was being typed, the 25-year-old has failed to qualify for the 2018 Australian Open, going down in three sets to 218th-ranked Italian Lorenzo Sonego.

    This will see his ranking drop to around the 170s, and leave him to face having to either contest Challenger events or qualifying for major tournaments if he is to rebuild his ranking.

    To finish off, let’s hope that Alex de Minaur and Ashleigh Barty (and to some extent, Daria Gavrilova and Ajla Tomljanovic) steer away from controversy and be known for their on-court talents rather than what they do off it.

    But while a single indiscretion from either of them won’t really plunge Tennis Australia into crisis, it wouldn’t be a good look for the sport here.

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    The Crowd Says (5)

    • January 15th 2018 @ 11:41am
      Mark said | January 15th 2018 @ 11:41am | ! Report

      The author of this article has a bit of a problem with facts. He claims, in his rose-coloured glasses “analysis”, that De Minaur has become “Australia’s second highest ranked male tennis player, at 127”, behind only Krygios. However Australia actually has 3 other players ranked higher than 127. Ebden, Thompson and Millman are all ranked higher than 127. Having disregarded these players, he then goes onto say that De Minaur could be inside the top 50 by Wimbledon. It apparently hasn’t occurred to the author that very few players as young as De Minaur get into the top 50. Shapovalov of Canada, who is a few months younger than De Minaur, recently became the youngest player to make the top 50 since a certain Rafa Nadal in 2004. In reality, De Minaur will be doing well if he is inside the top 100 by Wimbledon. De Minair is talented but let’s not get too carried away by a couple of good tournaments on home soil.

      • Roar Rookie

        January 16th 2018 @ 4:47am
        tsuru said | January 16th 2018 @ 4:47am | ! Report

        I think you’re being a bit harsh Mark. Certainly mastermind missed a couple of facts and I agree with you that top 50 by Wimbledon is overly ambitious. But there is a dearth of decent tennis articles on The Roar and I welcome such an attempt to create interest in our up-and-comers (although I think Barty has arrived). I think, as fans, we should be just happy that de Minaur has clearly taken a couple of steps up from last year. I asked in another comment if anyone could comment on his physique right now, as the last time I saw him he looked in need of a couple of kilos of muscle. I wonder if you or anyone else can give some info on that. I;m out of the country now and can’t get any TV coverage of the tennis. But overall, and in line with what this article is implying, the great thing is that we seem to have at least 2 really good players with a great attitude tied to their talents.

        • January 16th 2018 @ 3:23pm
          Mark said | January 16th 2018 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

          Agreed, I was a bit harsh, but I couldn’t believe the author hadn’t even taken the time to check the rankings and had overlooked the amazing rise up the rankings of Matt Ebden in 2017, to the point that he is Australia’s second ranked player, almost 50 spots ahead of De Minaur. I think that DeMinaur is starting to add some muscle to his frame, which he will need to do to become a top 50 player, but I stand by my criticism of the prediction that he can be top 50 by Wimbledon 2018. Such a prediction only puts unwanted pressure on a still very young man.

          • Roar Rookie

            January 17th 2018 @ 9:48am
            tsuru said | January 17th 2018 @ 9:48am | ! Report

            Totally agree about unwanted pressure on de Minaur. I think we should be happy if he gets into the top 100 this year and stays there by the end of the year. Thanks for the note about his physique. I mentioned elsewhere that Sasha Zverev’s trainer said a year or so ago that he was aiming to give him a couple of kilos of muscle for a couple of years, and I think that’s probably what de Minaur’s trainer would be trying for. He’s 18 and he needs to keep things in perspective. And so do the fans.

            • January 17th 2018 @ 11:21am
              Fionn said | January 17th 2018 @ 11:21am | ! Report

              Establishing himself in the top 100 would be a successful year for Alex.

              We have to remember that he was undoubtedly spurred on by the highly supportive Australian crowds. It will be a lot harder to play as well as he has without crowd support. He also needs to focus on S&C in order to try and avoid injuries.

              Still, a very successful summer for Alex, and I think he looks like he has the right attitude to succeed at this level.

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