Australian Alexei Popyrin lost a heartbreaking three-setter to countryman Thanasi Kokkinakis last week in the first round of the Adelaide International 2. After a back-and-forth battle, Kokkinakis used the crowd to triumph 6-0, 6-7(5), 7-5 after a grueling two hours and 45 minutes.
While Kokkinakis thanked the crowd and bathed in the cheers of his home fans, Popyrin was left empty-handed. It was another devastating defeat for a talented 23-year-old who struggled to a 5-17 tour-level record in 2022.
As Popyrin walked up the ramp to depart the Memorial Drive facility, fans waited for the one-time ATP Tour titlist to sign autographs, which he did happily. Popyrin then began the five-minute walk to his hotel when he noticed a boy more than 10 metres away trying to take a selfie with the Australian in the background. Popyrin might have lost the match, but he was still a star to the boy.
The Sydney-native called the fan over to take a proper selfie and could not help but crack a smile. As tough as his loss was, all was not bad for the Aussie. And just more than a week later, things could not be more different.
Popyrin on Thursday earned a stirring five-set win against eighth seed Taylor Fritz to reach the third round of the Australian Open for the third time. After the match, he was reduced to tears.
“Just to have the crowd chanting your name, playing a match like that, winning against a player like Taylor, for me it was really, really big, really emotional, especially after the year I had last year,” Popyrin said. “I think everybody knows the year I had last year. I won as many matches this month as I had on the tour last year. For me it was really emotional coming through that match, having the crowd chanting your name. Yeah, I’ll never forget it.”
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It was not just that Popyrin was performing — he was putting on a show for the John Cain Arena crowd in the process. The fans rode the highs and lows of the match with him and the Australian rewarded them for their support with a victory.
“During the match, they were amazing. I get goosebumps just thinking about it, honestly. They really helped me through the tough times, especially in that fourth-set tie-break,” Popyrin said. “I came out, they were equally as pumped that we were going to five sets. Probably not me, I wasn’t too happy we were going five sets. They were just equally as energetic and equally as motivating. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Hardcore fans might have noticed a new face in Popyrin’s box: former World No. 19 Xavier Malisse. The Belgian and Popyrin began working together in October.
“It felt like it was me and ‘X’ playing against Taylor. We were so mentally locked in, both of us. I was looking at him, he was looking at me all the time. We had eye contact after every point. I knew what he was thinking. He knew what I was thinking. We were in it together,” Popyrin said. “That’s not something you get with every single coach. You have to have a really special connection, a special bond that we’ve kind of built up since I’ve known him.”
Popyrin believes he has the game to challenge the best in the world, and he proved it against Fritz. Now he has an opportunity to reach the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the first time when he faces American Ben Shelton on Saturday. What a difference a week makes.
“I’m going to take it one match at a time. But, yeah, I think going into every tournament, you want to go all the way. For me, with the way I’m playing now, I think I have a good chance to win the next round,” Popyrin said. “That’s all that I’m looking towards, is the next round. I’m not looking forward. I don’t know who I play in the fourth round, quarter-finals, semi-finals. For me, the third round is the key.”