Before Medvedev Showdown, Popyrin Says 'I'm Not Starstruck Anymore'
Australian #NextGenATP star Alexei Popyrin is into the third round of the Australian Open for the second year in a row. But for the 20-year-old, his second run at Melbourne Park has been different.
“I think I've gotten a lot of experience [from] last year. I'm not kind of starstruck by being in the third round anymore,” Popyrin said. “I wouldn't say [I] got used to it, but I'm more self-centered and more focussed on the third round.”
Popyrin has a tough task ahead of him when he faces No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev, last year’s US Open finalist. But the World No. 96 is not shying away from the challenge.
“[I have] nothing to lose at all,” Popyrin said. “He's one of the best players in the world. It's going to be a great challenge for me. I'm really looking forward to it.”
Popyrin’s relationship with the Australian Open started long before he was on these courts swatting balls himself. On 20 January 2008, Lleyton Hewitt defeated Marcos Baghdatis in a five-set marathon at the Australian Open that ended at 4:33 a.m. That clash remains the latest finish to a match in history.
In the crowd that early morning inside Rod Laver Arena was an eight-year-old Popyrin. The youngster couldn’t make it to the fifth set, nearly falling asleep before getting taken home by his parents. In 2019, Popyrin was the one on a big stage at the year’s first major. Last season, he entered the Australian Open with just one tour-level win to his name.
But after defeating veteran Mischa Zverev and Top 10 staple Dominic Thiem, he had the full force of the Margaret Court Arena crowd behind him as he recovered from a two-set deficit to force a decider against eventual semi-finalist Lucas Pouille. Then 19, he was unable to complete the comeback, but it became clear that Popyrin is not afraid of competing under the spotlight.
"It was fantastic for him to get the win at the Australian Open in the first round against Mischa Zverev. But it was how he wasn’t completely happy with that: he wanted to keep going," said Hewitt. "Against Dominic Thiem on Melbourne Arena, which is one of the biggest courts at the Australian Open, for him to go out and play like he did was impressive. That’s now the belief that he can have, that he can match up with these guys, so that’s where he’s going to grow as a player."
“It gives me more confidence to say that I can play with these players,” Popyrin said last year. “It definitely motivates me to keep working. Not that I need much motivation to keep working, but I’ve still got goals that I need to achieve.”
Since that event, Popyrin showed he can compete week-in and week-out on the ATP Tour, advancing through qualifying at 10 tour-level events in 2019. The Aussie first broke into the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings on 24 June of last year. And now, Popyrin will try to reach the fourth round of a major for the first time against Medvedev, who beat him in the second round of Wimbledon last year.
“He's probably the hottest opponent you could get right now. Yeah, I played him in Wimbledon last year. I had opportunities,” Popyrin said. “I took him to four, won the first set, was a break up in the third. I think I'm a better player right now than I was in Wimbledon. I did a lot of work in the pre-season. Hopefully I can get the chances that I had in Wimbledon on Saturday and convert them.”
Twelve years ago, when Hewitt was battling Baghdatis deep into the Melbourne morning, Popyrin was just another kid in the crowd. Now, kids are in the seats watching him.