And then there was one.
Six days into the Australian Open 2023 and only Alex De Minaur remains after Alexei Popyrin last night failed to follow his Davis Cup teammate into the last 16 on a day when the attendance record was shattered in Melbourne.
Hopes were high for an Aussie for many of the 94,000 present across Melbourne Park but in the end it wasn’t even close, Popyrin crushed by the power and thrust of 20-year-old newcomer Ben Shelton out on John Cain Arena.
“The guy is top 10 in six months. He played great today,” said Popyrin who admitted to a few pre match nerves.
He did little wrong in fairness and came up against an opponent who did nothing wrong and Popyrin’s assessment — on this form — looks prescient indeed.
De Minaur though is still in the draw and now faces Novak Djokovic in round four on Monday night. He is too increasingly rounded as a performer and person.
Seeded 22, he speaks very well and has a deeper, more baritone voice than you might expect. He is polite, eye contact good and has a quiet authority. He is not asked the questions Nick Kyrgios gets and controversy is wholly alien.
He has a girlfriend whom he is asked about a lot — Britain’s Katie Swann — and speaks highly of her always. he has not been asked directly if he’s in love but very much seems it and is happy to gush about Katie always. He has a mum and three younger siblings who he’s very close to.
He’s also world ranked 24 and has been as high as 15. He doesn’t care if it’s him or Nick at the top of the Aussie pile he says, it’s all about the bigger picture and the good name of Australian tennis.
Lleyton Hewitt thinks very highly of Demon and when he was in his mid teens, Demon (and this nickname was always going to happen) came to stay with the Hewitts for about two years when his mum moved back to Spain. His loyalty to his Davis Cup captain, the most important man in Australian tennis right now, is absolute and reciprocated.
At 183cm high, Demon is bigger than he looks and this public (mis)perception is a bit of a thorn. He’s asked constantly if he’s big enough, powerful enough to compete with the 190cm plus men and the answer is emphatically yes.
While there are taller and stronger players about, there are few quicker and he can scuttle around with the dexterity of a crab but with the pace and anticipation of a whippet. Putting the extraordinary Andy Murray aside, is there anyone to match his ability and willing to hang in for every point and to fight? Almost certainly not.
So, Australian tennis has a gem on its hands but he’s almost 24-years-old and this can be his breakout tournament.
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Demon took his time to get going out on Rod Laver Arena against Benjamin Bonzi for the first set yesterday but when the tie-break arrived, he moved up about three gears in the few minutes it took to claim all seven points.
In a flash he was 3-1 ahead and the half way point of the match was there. It was, in all truth, done and dusted even at this stage and De Minaur romped home in a little over two hours and in three sets.
Typically he turned the attention immediately to Alexei Popyrin’s night match
“Let’s get Pop over the line today,” he urged the crowd before the very saccharine, “I’m getting my Popcorn ready.”
The biggie now awaits on Monday, Novak Djokovic in round four and there is a sense of perspective from De Minaur.
“I’m not going to read into too much of that injury. Ultimately he’s one of the best players in the world and I’m just going to have to take it to him and not shy away from the occasion,” he said.
“I’m going to make sure to make it as tough as I can and just bring the recent experience I’ve had on court. Ultimately it’s not to shy away from the opportunity and the occasion. I mean, these are the matches I want. It’s going to be exciting. I will get fired up, get the crowd behind me, and I’ll definitely have a good time.”
“You want to be playing the best in the world.”
Djokovic played down his ongoing injury concerns after beating Grigor Dimitrov in three sets and finishing at 10.30pm last night.
“I didn’t know how I was going to feel physically,” as the rationale for shooting out of the blocks before an ominous qualification.
“Thirty-five is the new 25,” he said.
De Minaur will not be thrilled.
There was never any doubt that Alexei Popyrin would be scheduled once more for John Cain Arena, the multipurpose venue tucked away at the back of Melbourne Park and where noise and constant activity among its 10,000 fans is standard.
His opponent last night, Ben Shelton, is the same 193cm as Popyrin but three years younger and ranked 89, 24 places higher.
Dad is Bryan Shelton who once reached 55 in the world and grabbed a couple of ATP titles.
Ben is potentially much better and his dream job is working on Wall Street he says. Though maybe not after last night and a minimum $338,000 pay cheque.
Coming out all guns swinging, Shelton shredded the big name Popyrin with as an exhilarating power display as we have seen this tournament, romping home 6-3, 7-6, 6-4.
The capacity crowd left was deflated — this was on the face it a real opportunity for Popyrin to join De Minaur in the last 16 — but will look back very shortly on the match in an “I was there” scenario.
Shelton was that good and this quarter of the draw, now shorn of seeds such as Casper Ruud, Alexander Zverev and Taylor Fritz (courtesy of Popyrin last round) is wide open.
It is jumping ahead admittedly but a semi-final between Shelton against the 19-year-old Holger Rune — the first, and very impressive, winner of the day on JCA — is more than feasible.
The young guns have arrived but, in the guise of Mr Djokovic (injured or otherwise) the old guard is very much still around.
Murray bows out
Andy Murray: where do we start?
An hour into his latest classic on Margaret Court Arena, Andy Murray looked every one of his 35 years plus a good few more, Thursday night’s near hour six drain fatal. Or so it seemed.
Up against Roberto Bautista Agut (the man who inadvertently made Murray cry in an AO press conference four years ago when the pain in Murray’s hip became too intense to play on and he contemplated calling it a day) he was hunched and stomping about after the Spaniard took the first set with consummate ease, 6-1.
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Seventy-eight minutes later it was all change, Murray deservedly taking set two on a tie-break. It is hard, borderline impossible to think of a more invigorating example of sheer guts. He loves the sport badly says Murray but the possibility of giving it up to retirement seems equally unlikely. Either way, the Scot is a walking miracle.
A third set, 49 minutes, followed and was lost and then finally a fourth (50 minutes) was lost too and Murray was out of the Australian Open,
It was always nigh on impossible that he would win the 2023 title but as for winning hearts, no-one has come even close this week. Sir Andy Murray indeed.