Not everybody shares a common story with tennis legend Roger Federer.
Alexei Popyrin is one of the few that shares not one, but two things in common with the Swiss maestro.
Federer has scaled the peak to tennis greatness, while the Australian ranks 86th in the world. But his legendary journey began in the same fashion.
Both started as ball kids in Basel and Dubai, respectively. Both are known to spend a great deal of time in the Middle Eastern city.
Popyrin, though, has a deeper connection.
The ambitious 21-year-old, born of Russian parents, found himself at the age of eight relocated to Dubai due to his father’s work commitments.
From early education to meeting his significant other, the UAE brings back a flood of memories.
Recalling his past, Popyrin says: “I remember going to school, and finishing my education online. That’s one fond memory that I have, and another one was playing the local tournaments around Fujairah, Sharjah, and Dubai.
“As is the case with all kids, I’d change and have food in the car while traveling to practice and tournaments.”
Having started his journey as a ball-boy for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Popyrin’s return to the Dubai Tennis Stadium has been a moving experience.
Tournament Director Salah Tahlak was only too happy to offer him a wild card into this year’s tournament, and praised the 21-year-old: “It is with great pleasure that we welcome Alexei Popyrin back to Dubai as a champion.
“He has come a very long way since he first took to the courts here as a ball kid, and he is fully deserving of the wild card he has received this week. We look forward to seeing how well he does in the years ahead.”
It wasn’t his physical and emotional ties to Dubai that earned him a wild card into this year’s Dubai Championships. He demonstrated his ability and fighting qualities at the recent Australian Open where he came through a thrilling battle with the recent Montpellier champion and number five seed at this year’s tournament, David Goffin.
The match lasted three hours and 43 minutes and Popyrin fought off four match points to reach the next round.
Discussing his progress, Popyrin says: “This match was proof that the hard work I put in during pre-season is paying off. David Goffin is certainly one of the fittest player’s on tour, and beating players of his quality is a confidence booster and I think that carried on into Singapore.”
The 21-year old completed a dream week at the Singapore Tennis Open as he rallied from a set down to defeat Alexander Bublik 4-6, 6-0, 6-2 to claim his maiden ATP Tour title and produced a dominant serving performance over the week.
In Singapore, Popyrin produced another significant victory, over former US Open champion and Australian Open and Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic.
“We have been watching the recent results of Alexei Popyrin with interest, and it is clear that he has a successful career ahead of him,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty-Free. “We have been delighted to welcome him back to the stadium where it could be said, he began his career in the sport, and we wish him all the best in the future.”
Popyrin, who’s enjoying a remarkable year, did not have the smoothest of rides against fellow wildcard Dennis Novak on Sunday, eventually winning 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 over two hard-fought sets.
“I came out to practice on the court and remembered Centre Court being much bigger than it is,” Popyrin said before his opening match against Dennis Novak. “It’s probably because I was really, really short and much smaller.
“It’s a beautiful Centre Court and I remember just, you know, just being part of a group with the ball boys, having my friends there around. I remember having lunch and dinner at the back where the ball boys usually were.
“And, you know, the smells. The smell is very similar and they bring the pictures back of me being a ball kid.”
Being in the presence of tennis royalty might have been an intimidating experience for a young kid, but that wasn’t the case with Alexei, who made the most of his privileged position.
Popyrin hadn’t been aware of his shared humble beginnings in the game, like Federer standing at the back of the court, retrieving the ball and handing the towel to the players. A similar future, as well as past, would sit well with him.