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'Confusing' de Minaur tactics slammed as over-eager Aussie crashes out

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24th January, 2022
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Australia’s hopes for a first singles winner at the Australian Open in more than 40 years rest solely on the shoulders of Ashleigh Barty, after Alex de Minaur’s bold run to the second week of the tournament was ended by Italian wunderkind Jannik Sinner.

Sinner, at 20 the youngest player left in the men’s singles draw, showed all the class that has him touted as a future grand slam champion, the 11th seed withstanding an early onslaught from an aggressive de Minaur to prevail in straight sets, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4.

Far from disgraced, de Minaur would create plenty of chances, bringing up eight break points to the Italian’s six for the match; but uncharacteristic impatience and an overzealous forehand cruelled the home favourite at critical times.

Sinner awaits the winner of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Taylor Fritz in a quarter-final showdown on Wednesday, already the Italian prodigy’s second appearance in the last eight at a grand slam.

The scheduling of the last Australian left in the men’s draw away from the prime-time night slot on Rod Laver Arena raised eyebrows; however, Channel Nine commentator and tennis great Jim Courier believed the move might have been an intentional one from the de Minaur camp.

“I’m wondering if Alex isn’t part of the reason this is a day match,” Courier said.

“Obviously when an Australian plays, the No.1 Aussie male, often times they play at night. But this is a day match. Perhaps that was intentional from Alex’s side.

“They do have a little bit of sway in scheduling… that is the case when a home player is playing.”

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However, any influence a sweltering Melbourne afternoon could have on proceedings was reduced as a pair of titanic women’s fourth round matches earlier in the day saw the match start well after 5pm.

Undeterred by the conditions, de Minaur would start the stronger, earning four break points on Sinner’s usually imperious serve in his first two service games alone.

Heeding his pre-match plan to be ‘aggressive’ and ‘really take it to’ the world’s best, a 146kph forehand showed a new side to de Minaur’s usually defensive, hard-running style.

One particular rally saw de Minaur overpower the 20-year old Italian again with a series of crunching groundstrokes, Courier describing the quality of tennis as ‘insane’.

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“That is like watching a video game,” Courier gushed on Nine.

“It’s amazing: the speed of the shots and then the quickness to get to the next one. That kind of intensity… they’re asking a lot [of each other].”

However, all four early chances to break serve went begging, and they would look all the more costly as Sinner’s mighty forehand found its range.

Also beginning to take a toll was de Minaur’s desire to match the Italian for power, Courier noting the Australian’s all-out attack was beginning to bite.

“That’s a shot he’s trying to be offensive with… you know when you want something too badly? And then you try and swing and there’s no racquet speed,” he said of the de Minaur forehand.

While the 22-year old would stave off a Sinner break point and send the set to a tie-break, the die had been cast. De Minaur’s best efforts to stamp himself on the match were met with a more calculated approach from the Italian.

“He’s working him from corner to corner,” Nine’s Todd Woodbridge noted after a set-high 19-shot rally saw the de Minaur forehand crack again.

19 unforced errors was the tale of the tape for the Australian in the first set, while he’d win just three of 12 points on his second serve to give Sinner a crucial edge.

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“The forehand’s letting him [de Minaur] down in the closing stages,” he would add as the Australian’s desire to pull the trigger early in points became more and more apparent as desperation set in with the tie-break slipping away.

Even Lleyton Hewitt agreed that his long-term protege needed to tone things down, telling Nine that de Minaur ‘doesn’t have to go after it quite as much; and [needs to] be a little more controlled’.

A netted forehand on set point after a series of brutal groundstrokes summed up the difference; Sinner’s power was just more accurate when it mattered.

Having silenced the crowd by claiming the tie-break, the 11th seed would survive two further break points at 15-40 to begin the second set.

Sinner’s time between serves, though, was starting to cause consternation, the Italian tight-roping the allowed 30 seconds between points, particularly slowing things down to rescue that opening service game.

Chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani was called out by Courier for allowing Sinner too much leeway.

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“He’s [Lahyani] one of the more empathetic umpires out there,” the American said.

“He may be going too far in his empathy by allowing players to have a little bit more time.”

Unrushed and unflustered, Sinner would continue on his merry way; the errors now flowing freely from the de Minaur racquet, particularly from the forehand side, as the world No.10 tightened his grip on the match

When the de Minaur serve finally cracked to earn Sinner a 2-0 lead on the third attempt, it was hard to see a way for the 32nd seed to fight back.

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“He needs to turn the temperature down a little bit… be a little less generous with the unforced errors,” Courier advised as de Minaur’s mistake count ballooned, expressing his surprise at the Aussie’s notable change of tactics.

“The thing that confuses me a little bit about Alex is overt aggression in this match… he’s not allowing one of his best attributes to come to the fore – and that’s defence,” he added.

“The guy is unbelievably fast and amazing at picking shots off the baseline and getting them back into play and challenging people to beat him.

“And so far this is a pure offensive contest. He’s not allowed his defence to be really that involved.”

Alex de Minaur plays a backhand.

Alex de Minaur plays a backhand in his fourth round Australian Open match against Jannik Sinner. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

However, it wasn’t as if the match was solely being decided on de Minaur’s racquet. The talented Italian’s tennis improved the longer the match went, with even the ‘Demon’ himself only able to applaud a particularly audacious winner during the second set.

Despite the match slipping away, de Minaur’s fighting spirit was unbroken; but the Aussie’s inability to convert when it mattered most continued to haunt him.

A 20-shot rally finished with a scintillating de Minaur forehand down the line had the crowd buzzing once more as the Italian served for the set. But a bad misfire looking to put the pressure on a Sinner second serve, one of 37 unforced errors for the match, had Courier aghast.

“You cannot do that. I think Alex got hyped, he got anxious, and that was the wrong decision,” the 1992 and 1993 champion said on Nine’s coverage.

“Little moments come up in this game, and they’re so important.

“It’s okay to miss the shot, but miss the right shot.”

A two sets to love lead was always going to be difficult for even de Minaur, arguably the quickest man in world tennis, to chase down.

While he could save one break point as Sinner looked to make a decisive move in the first game of the third set, a pair of unforced errors would make it all for nought on the second go for the Italian as the end loomed large.

A love break for 4-1 showcased once more the young gun’s deadly power, and somewhat explained de Minaur’s tactical change. The raw ball-striking power of the 11th seed would likely have been too strong for even de Minaur’s relentless returning had he stayed true to his usual game plan.

As a last resort, de Minaur would go back to his roots at the last with success, the Aussie grinding from the baseline as Sinner’s forehand this time was sprayed wide for a break back.

But it was too late to spark the match into life, Sinner calmly seeing out the match to advance to his first quarter-final at Melbourne Park.

As for the Australian singles contingent in 2022… over to you, Ash.

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