Popyrin following the Demon trail to Wimbledon glory

Ian Chadband |

Alexei Popyrin, who lost to Novak Djokovic at Rod Laver Arena in January, seeks Wimbledon revenge.
Alexei Popyrin, who lost to Novak Djokovic at Rod Laver Arena in January, seeks Wimbledon revenge.

Alexei Popyrin can hardly believe a supposed once-in-a-lifetime chance has actually come around twice, as he aims to follow his old Sydney contemporary Alex de Minaur on the road to Wimbledon glory.

The only two Australians left in the singles draws were both due to embark on third-round ties on Saturday, with the tantalising prospect of meeting each other in the quarter-final down the line.

Popyrin
Popyrin is playing better than he’s ever done on grass courts. (AP PHOTO)

That still feels a mighty long way off, though, as Popyrin has to first achieve the unlikely feat of downing seven-times champion Novak Djokovic in Saturday’s (Sunday AEST) third round.

Meanwhile, ninth seed de Minaur was handed an unexpected walkover win just an hour before his match was due to get under way, when France’s world No.212 Lucas Pouille withdrew with a stomach injury.

Popyrin played alongside ‘Demon’ when they were young, and has watched his old friend surge to becoming a top-10 player while he still dreams of the big breakthrough he feels his talent and dedication will eventually produce.

“What Alex is doing drives every Aussie a lot,” Popyrin said. 

“It’s extra motivation seeing he’s in the top 10 and competing for slams and Masters titles. He’s what we all strive for – his level, his career, it’s unbelievable. 

“And he’s got more to give for sure.

“But I do have the game to be able to play at that level too.”

And what a stage to prove it. Popyrin has been allocated his first Centre Court outing, a privilege he and coach Neville Godwin, who’ve played a dozen Wimbledons between them, have never before enjoyed.

Playing Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open in January felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the 24-year-old Popyrin – but he left frustrated after having set points to go 2-1 up only to eventually lose in four sets.

Pops and Demon
Popyrin and Alex de Minaur have long been friends and Davis Cup colleagues. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

Yet now another dream opportunity has arisen, the chance to play the great man on Centre, and he’s determined to make this visit count, especially with more than a few question marks hanging over Djokovic’s sharpness after his recent meniscus operation.

While still assuming “Djokovic will be a different beast at Wimbledon” and not wanting to make any wild predictions, the world No.47 declared: “I know I can do it”.

“In Australia, I gave a really good account of myself. I genuinely believe I would have won that match if I had won that second set, I was in the driving seat,” he said. 

“I felt super, super comfortable out there. And I enjoyed every moment. 

“He’s a super-solid player. But I do feel he gives you chances every now and then. 

“Not many, but when he does, you have to take it. Because if you don’t, he’ll make you pay.”

Asked if not winning had gnawed away at him, Popyrin shrugged.

“Definitely. I came off court quite frustrated with myself that I didn’t get those break points,” he said.

He certainly won’t be overawed by the occasion any more, having played Djokovic on Laver and Rafa Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier at the French Open.

“If you’d asked me two, three years ago, I’d probably have said I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at night thinking of the match,” Popyrin said. 

“But now I’m going out there like it’s just another match against just another player. 

“And I feel like I have the level to be able to cause problems.”

Djokovic agreed.

“We had a very good match in Australia. He improved his backhand a lot and his movement, that was maybe not as good in the past,” the Serbian superstar said. 

“He’s becoming a complete player. He’s not afraid to finish the point at the net.

“If he serves well, it’s very tough to play. Anybody on the grass that serves as good as he does. 

“I guess one of the keys will be how good I’ll be at reading his serves and getting it back in play, make him work for his points.

“I’m expecting a tough challenge.”

AAP