In the normal world, tennis fans would’ve been preparing for the start of the 2020 French Open this week.
When you think about the greats of Australian tennis, the names Pat Rafter, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Court, Ken Rosewall and indeed Lleyton Hewitt come to mind.
The next generation has arrived though and while for the time being it’s headlined by Nick Kyrgios, 19-year-old Alex De Minaur is soon going to be the leader of the pack.
The similarities in style between De Minaur and current Davis Cup coach Hewitt are uncanny, but the argument could certainly be made the youngster has more natural ability than his mentor.
Hewitt enjoyed some incredible career highs. There’s no doubting what he achieved was built on his ability to fight, grind, stay in points and force opponents into mistakes, rather than having the natural talent of say, Kyrgios for example.
It’s almost frustrating, knowing if Hewitt had that level of natural ability to go with his work ethic, the Aussie battler could have won countless grand slams. Kyrgios, really, should learn a few things from his Davis Cup captain and do the same.
That’s another story for another day though, because right now it’s time to focus on De Minaur and the comparisons he is rightly drawing to Hewitt, who had a stellar career.
The South Australian finished his career with two grand slam victories (US Open 2001 and Wimbledon 2002) as well as another two grand slam finals (US Open 2004 and Australian Open 2005).
If that wasn’t enough, he won Indian Wells twice (2002 and 2003), took out the ATP Finals twice (2001 and 2002) and spent a staggering 80 weeks as world No.1, leaving him with the tenth most in history.
Saying all that, it’s not hard to question the validity of a call like this – that De Minaur will one day eclipse the career of Hewitt. It seems crazy enough, but the youngster has burst onto the scene in 2018 with the same fighting grit Hewitt had to show throughout his career.
Hewitt’s style of play was best described as defensive counterpunching. He would find a way to keep balls in play and then seize on any opportunity presented by players either dropping short or making errors off their own racquet after playing long, physical points.
The reason so many players made errors against Hewitt was because they felt they had to go for so much to beat him in any given point. There were no freebies off the racquet of Hewitt, especially in the first seven or eight years of his career and so players would go for impossible angles to beat him, eventually falling by the wayside.
It would hardly be a surprise to see De Minaur recreate those footsteps. Even throughout the summer, and when he has played well after leaving Australia, unforced error counts from his opponents have been high, simply because they have been going for everything.
After finishing 2017 by winning the Australian Open wildcard playoff, De Minaur rose from outside the top 200 to almost be a direct entry for the French Open, such has been the brilliance of his 2017 start.
Defeating Milos Raonic in Brisbane was a highlight, returning his 230km/h plus serves with ease. He was returning them so easily in fact, he was being aggressive. It looked like he was taking on a second serve half the time, and it allowed him to take a straight sets victory.
Sydney brought with it more big victories and his first ATP tour final, and while injury meant he wasn’t at his best for the Australian Open, he still pinched a set off one of the best in the world, Tomas Berdych.
There’s no questioning Berdych showed up De Minaur, who clearly is at least 12 months away from his best. He needs to bulk up and have more power in his game to be a consistent player against the best in the world, but that will come with experience and time.
The youngster showed exactly where his career development is at when he came back time and time again to take then world No.4 Alexander Zverev to five sets at the Davis Cup. Pressurised situations don’t come much bigger than an opening Davis Cup rubber and for De Minaur to hold his own on debut, it showed he has a very good head on his shoulders.
Moreover though, it proved that just like his mentor, he is more than happy to grind his way through points and use what can only be described as a stunning level of acceleration to stay in matches.
When a tennis player doesn’t have the power to match their opponents, speed and defensive skill is the best trait to have. De Minaur has always been smaller than his opponents, even through juniors and so he is well trained in the skill of not letting anything past him.
While form has been a little bit up and down since leaving Australia, that’s going to happen to a young player learning the ropes in their first full season on the ATP tour.
2018 is about learning for De Minaur, with the year likely to end in selection for Australia as they travel to Austria for a Davis Cup tie. That, with a potential match on clay against Dominic Thiem may be the true test of his mettle.
For now though, he has shown more than enough to suggest he can be a great and by the end of his career, mentioned alongside those at the top of this article.
The resemblance between De Minaur and Hewitt is there, and while it’s far from certain, De Minaur will one day become Australia’s best and most loved tennis star since his current mentor.