Cash On Popyrin: 'He's Got A Chance To Make It A Long Way'
Entering the season, #NextGenATP Aussie Alexei Popyrin had played in just one Grand Slam main draw match, losing in the first round of last year’s Australian Open. But it’s been a breakthrough year for the 20-year-old at the majors, where he has not only competed in every main draw, but after defeating Federico Delbonis 6-1, 7-5, 7-6(5) at the US Open Tuesday, Popyrin has won at least one match at every Slam in 2019.
“It’s obviously a great achievement for me,” Popyrin said. “It’s something that I didn’t expect at the start of the year, but it’s something that’s really a good achievement for me and it’s just proving that the hard work is paying off right now and hopefully it continues that way.”
In the next round, Popyrin will face Mikhail Kukushkin, who upset No. 10 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round. But the Aussie is not getting wrapped up in not having to face the in-form Bautista Agut.
“I’m just going to take it one match at a time, honestly. I don’t know who I have in the third round now. Didn’t know I had [Bautista] Agut or Kukushkin. I just found out before I went to see the physio that [Bautista] Agut lost, but we’re going to prepare the same way,” Popyrin said. “We’re going to scout him. I’m going to do everything I would do if I played against [Bautista] Agut and I’m going to go out there and try my best.”
Regardless of his opponent, the Aussie is not completely worried about who is across the net. Instead, he is focussed on his own game and the challenges he himself poses. That’s what helped him reach the third round of the Australian Open, where he pushed Lucas Pouille to five sets.after falling two sets down.
“I think that going out without confidence that you’ll win the match, there’s no point in going out at all. So each match I’m going to go out there and I’m going to have confidence to win,” Popyrin said. “So I’m going to believe in myself, I’m going to believe that I can win the match and I feel like if I play at the top of my level I can really push any player to the maximum. It’s just trying to keep consistent, having less of those ups and downs during the match. That’s for me to work on and just comes with experience for me.”
Popyrin is currently in 11th place in the ATP Race To Milan as he makes a push to qualify for the Next Gen ATP Finals, which take place from 5-9 November. The Top 7 players earn a berth into the 21-and-under season finale, with an eighth spot going to the winner of an Italian 21-and-under wild card event.
But the World No. 105, who climbed as high as No. 87 in the ATP Rankings in July, does not focus too much on points and daily results. Popyrin works hard to improve his game with the thinking that doing so will lead to even better results.
Aussie legend Pat Cash joined Popyrin’s team for the grass-court season, doing his best to work with the #NextGenATP star on developing aspects of his game that could benefit him, especially on quicker courts.
“He did a great job in quite a lot of areas. He’s an exceptional athlete, there’s no doubt about that. And he’s very good under pressure. Those are two very important things that were highlighted to me,” Cash said. “The rest of the technical stuff you can work on and improve that. When you’re playing under pressure and moving, that’s sort of stuff you’re born with to a certain extent. You can always improve these things. Players get better, players become better athletes. But if you’ve got that naturally, and you like to compete and you can play well under pressure, then that’s a huge bonus… so that for me gave me the indication that he’s got a chance to make it a long way in the game.”
Before this season, Popyrin owned just one tour-level victory. But he is already proving to show no fear in tight situations, winning more than half (9-8) of his tour-level tie-breaks this year. Younger players sometimes need time to adjust to the pressures of those tight moments on the ATP Tour, but Popyrin has quickly fine-tuned his game under those circumstances.
“It’s pretty rare to get somebody who likes to compete that well and is pretty cool under pressure. Having said that, at a young age, you’re fearless and you’ve got nothing to lose. Things will change as his reputation gets bigger and the pressure gets to him, but on the flip side, players will get nervous against him, so it can work both ways,” Cash said. “But he does have the ability to perform well under pressure in tie-breaks. He’s got a great tie-break record and that’s a good indication as well.”
Cash didn’t want to get into the details so as to avoid giving Popyrin’s opponents too much insight, but the Aussie said that bearing in mind Popyrin has a 'very good gift' at the net, they wanted to refine some things.
“That’s given him another element to his game, where he obviously’s got a big serve, a big forehand, everybody knows that. But there are lots of players who have got big serves and big forehands,” Cash said. “You’ve got to have more than that, so we were developing those other areas, and the grass-court surface was a great place to try them out without expectations and he did that really well. It’s developing an all-around game, not just a serve and a forehand, and I think he’s doing that nicely.”
Popyrin already has the ability at only 20 to play aggressively and dictate points. But Cash wanted to help develop other options for the Aussie.
“I wouldn’t say [I was] apprehensive [coming to net], it was moreso that I was comfortable on the baseline and wasn’t really comfortable moving into the court whenever I had the chance,” Popyrin said. “The addition of Pat during the Wimbledon season was a great addition that really opened my eyes a little bit more. It’s just another dimension that I added to my game, which is great.”
As Cash noted, it’s important for Popyrin to keep things in perspective. If he loses a match one week because a certain aspect of his game is off, and then drops another match the following week because of something else, it’d be ill-advised to keep switching focuses for the short term. But the 1987 Wimbledon champion is confident that Popyrin will not let his early success get to his mind.
“The tennis circuit has a great way of bringing you down to earth pretty quickly if you think you’re a bit good, particularly the men’s circuit, which is so competitive. So if you’re not right on your edge, if you’re not fired up all the time, it’s quite simple: you’ll lose. You’ll go through a bad run,” Cash said. “He’s under no illusions that it’s easy. He works hard, he knows every match is tricky. But there’s lots of things he has to navigate through the circuit and you’ve got to plan your way through the circuit. You can’t just play every tournament; you’ve got to put in breaks. You’ve got to understand that some things take longer then other things.
“He’ll make mistakes and he’ll lose matches that he thought he can win, but it’ll go the other way around as well. I think he’s understanding one of the things that I thought was important for him to understand, which was you’ve got to start doing stuff now for the future. It’s very tough for young players and parents that you’ve got to think long-term… So he’s got good people behind him and I think he understands that it may not be a quick rise to the top. Sometimes it is, but he’s not expecting it.”
Nevertheless, Popyrin will show no fear when he walks onto Court 12 Thursday against Kukushkin at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. After all, he has thrived at the Slams this year.
“I think it’s just the vibe of Grand Slams. I really enjoy playing Grand Slams, the big crowds, the big stadiums even though I didn’t play on one today,” Popyrin said. “But I had a good crowd out there. Some of the Aussie support, I still heard it even if it was on a small court. Just all that. I like the Grand Slam vibe. It’s very busy, but at the same time it just gives you a sense that you’ve made it to the top of the sport.”