With Alex de Minaur in spotlight at Wimbledon, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis talk pressure of being young and talented

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New Aussie on the block: Alex de Minaur.

Before his Wimbledon third round against world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, Alex de Minaur had his fellow Australian Nick Kyrgios buzzing about the teenager’s chances in the Centre Court showdown.

With a strong grass-court game that saw him win the Nottingham Challenger last month, as well as reach the final in Surbiton, De Minaur has already made some noise these past few weeks, before he reached his first Grand Slam third round this fortnight at Wimbledon.

Mentored by two-time major champion Lleyton Hewitt, and with an exciting style and personality that has earned him many fans, De Minaur started 2018 with a bang, making the semis in Brisbane — defeating Milos Raonic en route — and the final in Sydney. A scorching start to his Australian summer.

Today, De Minaur is ranked No. 80 in the world and has the backing of Kyrgios ahead of his showdown with Nadal.

“He’s going to be a guy that’s going to love playing on grass for his whole career. These type of balls, nightmare, so flat. He’s a great returner. I honestly think he can cause some damage the next round. I don’t think Rafa is going to be liking the ball that’s going to come at him constantly for three hours,” predicted Kyrgios.

“It’s going to be a tough ask for him, but I think he could definitely cause a little bit of discomfort. He’s got a lot of good guys around him. Lleyton is always with him. [Jason] Stoltenberg is with him. He’s got a good team around him. So that’s good. Hopefully the media just leaves him alone.”

That last remark was a half joke from Kyrgios, but he later expanded on it. Kyrgios is someone who knows all too well what it feels like to be young, talented, and under the spotlight. He shocked Nadal in the Wimbledon fourth round in 2014, when he was just 19 years old and ranked 144 in the world. He then reached another quarter-final at the Australian Open in 2015 but hasn’t made that stage at a major since. Kyrgios, now 23, has a devastating game that can beat anyone on any given day, but is still searching for that real major breakthrough, and is trying to find the right mentality to approach the sport, and deal with the media.

“I’m just saying, like he’s going to have a big career. Don’t hype him up too much. Like if he beats Nadal, don’t say like, ‘This guy is going to win Wimbledon’. Let him alone. Let him do his thing,” Kyrgios told reporters at Wimbledon on Thursday, in a tone that showed how protective he is of De Minaur.

De Minaur was a Wimbledon junior finalist in 2016 — losing to Denis Shapovalov — while Kyrgios won the 2013 Australian Open boys’ singles title, defeating fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis in the final.

While De Minaur believes his junior experience at Wimbledon has helped him approach the men’s tournament this year with some degree of confidence, Kyrgios says Grand Slam junior success is sometimes a double-edged sword.

“I think the really only good thing about playing the junior Grand Slams for me was I just felt comfortable here playing in the men’s. I don’t think I would have had as deep of a run the first year I played main draw here if I didn’t play juniors. I was very comfortable with my surroundings. I saw the locker rooms. I saw the big guys walking around. I thought in that sense playing the junior Grand Slams was very good,” said Kyrgios.

“I think the downside of playing juniors, when you get to No. 1 in the world, you think everything comes on a plate. Then you kind of think you’re a big shot when you’re really not. You got to grind out futures.

“You don’t really know what’s coming. You go from playing these Grand Slams, to playing futures in Korea and stuff. That’s the downside of it. You can get too big for your shoes, of course.”

Kokkinakis, who, like Kyrgios, was one of the teenagers to watch a few years ago, has had his career derailed by a series of serious injuries and is now ranked 177 in the world. He’s back competing this season though, and had a big win over Roger Federer in Miami in March.

Talking about what it was like getting lots of attention when he was younger, Kokkinakis, now 22, says: “Definitely there’s an element of the pressure but you’d rather have the pressure than not have it at all. If you have the pressure, that means you’re doing well or have done something well in the past. You’d rather have it that way than constantly just flying under the radar and not really make any headlines for the right reasons.

“If Alex beats Rafa at Wimbledon, I think you should get behind him, it’s a hell of an effort. He’s going to go out there, nothing to lose, but also the media probably needs to understand, just because you beat a big player – I’ve been in the same situation – it doesn’t mean you’re going to beat almost everyone you’re expected to beat.

“Everyone can play at this level, you never know what’s going on with the same individual one day. Because everything is clicking when you beat a good player. But there’s so many good players out there and sometimes you’re not feeling great and they’re playing some good tennis and then they’re like ‘how do you beat this guy and then lose to this guy?’ and that’s taken me a lot of time to get used to.”

De Minaur, nicknamed ‘Demon’ by his fellow Aussie players, isn’t getting too carried away by his fast rise this season – he moved up from outside the top-200 to No. 80 in the world in six months.

His coach, Adolfo Gutierrez, is an important factor in De Minaur’s level-headed approach to the game.

“We go one match at a time and we don’t think how far he can or can’t go,” says Gutierrez.

“At the end of the year we’ll see. The idea was to get into the top-100 this year and he reached that goal quickly and now we’ll see what more he can do. We’ll work every day and then we’ll see.”

Kokkinakis believes the most pressure and attention for Australian players comes, naturally, at the start of the year when they are playing on home soil.

Asked if the fact that the attention is shared with other Australians like Kyrgios and himself can help De Minaur’s cause, Kokkinakis says: “There’s such a massive emphasis on the Aussie summer, and there’s just so much tennis to be played for the rest of the year, it’s almost forgotten about a little bit in Australia at times, unless you obviously make big runs in Slams. It’s good.

“He’s [De Minaur] probably having his first proper year on tour, and it’s good so you’re kind of playing with house money a little bit, you don’t have much to defend, you can play aggressively and into main draws of every tournament now for him, which is good.

“He needs to ride the wave as much as he can and keep developing and who knows where he can get to.”

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