Tennis is a sport dictated by types.
You have your big servers, big hitters, defenders, shot makers, and even some straggling serve-and-volleyers. Flip on an average tennis match, and it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly what a guy’s game will revolve around. Watch a few games, and you can see the permutations that the match can follow.
The best players are still the ones who defy type. Rafael Nadal attacks while defending and subtly has one of the best net games on tour. Roger Federer brings out out-and-out serve and volleys in big moments and can win points from anywhere in any way.
The young stars who are beginning to bust out have their types too.
Hyeon Chung is a defender.
Kyle Edmund is a power player.
Andrey Rublev is a power player who doesn’t have a serve.
And then there’s Alex De Minaur.
He is certainly a defender more than he is an attacker. His serve is a point starter more than anything else. He won’t play more than a small handful of matches this year against players who hit softer than he. He covers an ungodly amount of court, too. His groundstrokes are ugly in appearance. He lets the ball get awfully deep before flicking his wrists around. His backhand is a more athletic looking version of Nick Kyrgios’s bunt.
But all those shots are auxiliary pieces.
Before this year, De Minaur was an ITF level player. His career highlights through 2016 included making two ITF finals and a Challenger final, winning none, and losing to Shapovalov in the 2016 junior Wimbledon final. That isn’t a biography that screams “next big thing.”
De Minaur earned himself a wildcard entry into the Brisbane International 250 level tournament to start his 2017 season. After beating Steve Johnson in straights in the first round, he earned a date against Milos Raonic.
Raonic was not fit. His performance a few weeks later in Melbourne made that exceptionally clear. But what Raonic does have is a massive serve. His fastest ever recorded came in at a dizzying 250 kph (155.3 mph). A quick glance at the 18-year old De Minaur, who is generously listed at 5-11, 152 pounds, would make you think that Raonic’s power would have the Australian setting up shop with his back against the wall.
Alex De Minaur’s game is built from around this position.
Looking down the barrels of one of the biggest hitters on tour, De Minaur takes a half step away from the baseline and plants himself right there. The advantage is simple: shrink the court for your opponent. Back up too far, and a wide serve can drag you out of the point. The closer you are to the baseline, the less time your opponent has to handle your return.
Of course, that all presupposes you can even get the ball back.
De Minaur sees the game differently than other players. Not only does he have ludicrous reaction skills, he reads his opponent incredibly well. The slightest differences in ball toss, footwork, or body angling give De Minaur that split-second headstart to get to the ball. He doesn’t only get the ball back, he attacks, immediately negating his opponent’s biggest shot and taking control of the rally.
From there, De Minaur has a solid if not spectacular baseline game with some serious variety to throw. He even has polished one of Nadal’s best tricks: sneakily attacking the net off his opponent’s backhand slice to steal points off the volley.
Raonic was the first big name to fall to De Minaur, with the Australian claiming a 6-4, 6-4 win. The big Canadian was knocked off his game and he never found a way back in.
De Minaur would run all the way to the semifinals in Brisbane.
The following week in Sydney, De Minaur made the finals and while no one was as big a name as Raonic, taking out Fernando Verdasco and Damir Džumhur was no small feat for an 18-year old fresh out of tennis’s minor leagues.
His Australian Open lasted only four sets, but losing to eventual semifinalist, Tomas Berdych, is nothing to be ashamed of, especially taking into account the fatigue that two weeks of deep runs put on De Minaur’s legs.
Last night, De Minaur was back at it as the 109th debutant in the history of the Australian Davis Cup team. His opponent? Only the 5th ranked player in the world, Alexander Zverev.
The match was sensational. De Minaur went down a set, then was up two sets to one before Zverev evened the match and sent it to a deciding fifth set. De Minaur broke early and had a chance for a double break before Zverev recollected himself and forced a tiebreak.
Then Zverev nailed all six of his first serves in the breaker and emerged as a 7-5, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) winner.
Good for Zverev, by the way. He’s an exceptionally talented player who is still so young. While watching him take on De Minaur, it was easy to think of Zverev as the established veteran who was holding off a young challenger. In reality, Zverev is a year younger than Hyeon Chung, the breakout star of Melbourne, three years younger than Kyle Edmund, and six years younger than Grigor Dimitrov. He’s got time to figure it out, and we should all accept that and enjoy the rise of an unreal talent.
While De Minaur didn’t get the win, it was yet another shining example of why not only the Aussie is one of the brightest young talents in the game, but how exceptionally fun he is to watch.
No one else on tour plays like De Minaur. He has found a way to subvert the serve with enough consistency that it changes the complexion of his matches. He’s already claimed Raonic. Zverev is lucky to have escaped. More big names will follow.
The next giant killer on tour is 18 years old. And his name is Alex De Minaur.