Two finals will be played on Sunday at the Nature Valley Open, and each will feature players from Great Britain and Australia.
While the two Aussies in contention for glory are at different stages of their careers, similarities can be drawn between them both – and not just because of their ability to slice backhands and move into the court. Rather, just as two years have made the world of difference for Ashleigh Barty, a year has brought forth abundant changes for 19-year-old Alex de Minaur.
Last year, de Minaur bowed out in the final round of qualifying in Nottingham. But at the Nature Valley Open this season, he has soared into the grand finale as the no. 2 seed.
As his current ranking of world no. 96 suggests, much has changed in a positive sense for Australia’s latest rising star over the past 12 months. Most notably, de Minaur alerted the ATP World Tour to his presence back in January: by storming to career-best runs to open the season. At home Down Under, he ploughed through the likes of Milos Raonic, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez en route to a maiden ATP semifinal in Brisbane, and a final in Sydney the ensuing week.
While he lost out to 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych in an unfortunate Australian Open first round, the speedy teen had certainly announced himself.
“In Australia, you feel like everyone is out there barracking for you,” de Minaur explained, after beating no. 4 seed Ilya Ivashka 6-2 6-4 in Saturday’s Nottingham Open semifinals. “It’s an amazing atmosphere, and as a player that’s all you can ever ask for. Playing at home is incredible.”
He added: “But that only happens at the start of the year, so you’ve got to be able to play away from home in different countries and places where the crowd’s probably not gonna be on your side. So it is what it is. You’ve gotta adapt and gotta play well everywhere.”
The youngster has been attempting to do this valiantly, and with some success – although one would not be aware of this by assessing his ATP results alone. The 19-year-old’s lightning court coverage, relentless tennis and sheer intensity were unleashed to their full potential in Australia. Nevertheless, de Minaur has won only two matches in the four ATP main draws he has competed at since then.
What the Aussie has shown, however, is his ability to concentrate solely on his own game, and therefore win the majority of the matches he should be winning – with steady progression coming as a result. His consistency on the ATP Challenger Tour – a circuit bursting with talent that could give the top 20 a run for their money – is undeniable, and de Minaur’s top 100 debut has come between back-to-back ATP Challenger finals for the NextGen star.
“It was a goal of mine at the start of the year [to break the top 100], and I’m very proud of myself for being able to accomplish it,” de Minaur shared. “But it doesn’t change anything at all in terms of who I am, or what I do on the court. It’s just the same old me doing the same old things.”
‘Same old’ does not do justice to the freshness that de Minaur brings to the game: in terms of energy and excitement on the court, and a pleasant and likeable demeanour off it. But that is not his point.
“At the end of the day, you’ve just got to try and get better each day,” he said. “That’s the only thing you can do. And hopefully, with that, the ranking gets better as well. So it’s all about going day by day.”
To illustrate, he continued: “I don’t think I could have imagined [reaching back-to-back finals], because I’ve never tried to look ahead of myself. So I’ve never really sat down and thought what my results would be for these two weeks. But I think I’ve handled each match very well, been there the whole match, competed all the way, and played some good grass-court tennis. That’s the only thing I would ask from myself, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
His step by step approach is part of what is becoming a winning formula for the Sydney-born youth. Should the nimble Aussie continue his current form and focus, it is unlikely that the general public will be able to see him compete at such close quarters for much longer. The teenager lost only to experienced world no. 72 Jeremy Chardy in Surbiton last week, and has been displaying great maturity and mental poise in defeating the likes of Taylor Fritz and Chris Eubanks without dropping a set.
The right-hander reiterated the importance of his inner game after his semifinal victory in Nottingham, where world no. 115 Ivashka could match neither his consistency, nor his intensity.
“It was a great match, a very high level of tennis throughout,” de Minaur reflected. “I managed to keep my focus and not get broken throughout the whole match, which was pretty big for me.”
De Minaur’s serve is not a real weapon, with the Aussie standing at 5’11”, but it is fairly steady. And his game off the ground is becoming a force to be reckoned with – especially on grass, which allows him to strike deep and follow his handiwork up to the net. While his pace around the court marks de Minaur out from the crowd, his ease with mixing up the pace of the rallies – executing the slice, and varying the depth and placement of his groundstrokes – is becoming increasingly impressive.
His utter commitment to each point is driving the rising star up the rankings, but also notable is the way in which de Minaur composes himself. While he fist-pumps and smiles, he still possesses the focussed, slightly serious air of those destined for great things.
The Surbiton finalist will need all of that composure when he comes up against Dan Evans – who was ranked world no. 41 as recently as last season prior to a drugs ban – in Sunday’s ultimate showdown.
“I played the final last week, and that didn’t go the way I wanted it to, so hopefully tomorrow’s a different occasion. But then again, it’s just another tennis match,” the no. 2 seed stated. “You do the same things you do as any other, and you just go out there and compete your hardest. Leave it all out there, and we’ll see what happens at the end of the day.”
He added: “I’m expecting the crowd to be on his side. That’s what any good crowd would do, you know – it’s a home player. So I’m just looking forward to getting out there, and it’s another opportunity for me. It’s going to be fun against an exciting player like him.”
Losing the crowd’s backing does not seem to concern the world no. 96 at all – proving that he practices what he preaches when it comes to adapting to all situations. And for de Minaur, there is no doubt at all about what has enabled him to start thriving over the past 12 months.
“It’s got to do a lot with belief,” he stated. “Belief in myself, belief in my game, and going out there each day believing that I can win. That’s the biggest thing [that has changed.]”
Belief in his tennis. Belief in his opportunities in every point, whether on the front or the back foot. And possibly, belief that one day, he is destined to live with the elite.
Because as long as Alex de Minaur’s mentality is in the right place, it provides a rock solid foundation for his talent. And, as yet, there is no telling where the limit of that talent might be.