Tennis-Dogged De Minaur leads local charge at Australian Open

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – While injured Nick Kyrgios will be a vocal presence on the sidelines of the Australian Open, it will be the home nation’s quiet achiever Alex de Minaur carrying the main weight of fans’ expectations on court.

De Minaur has spent much of his career toiling in Kyrgios’s shadow, making incremental gains each year while his flashier compatriot hogged the headlines.

Now, with Kyrgios restricted to TV duties and an ambassadorial role while his body recovers, De Minaur heads to Melbourne Park as Australia’s number one after putting together his most encouraging season.

The man nicknamed ‘Demon’ captured his first ATP 500 title at the Mexico Open in Acapulco last March, reached a career-high world ranking of 11 and finished the year by guiding Australia into a second successive Davis Cup final.

The feats have been all the more remarkable given the 24-year-old’s limited arsenal.

In a men’s game dominated by muscular brutes and fierce forehands, the lightly-built De Minaur is an outlier, lacking in killer weapons.

Not unlike mentor Lleyton Hewitt, Australia’s former world number one and Davis Cup captain, De Minaur has to work hard for his wins, relying on leg speed, fitness and heart instead of raw power and a thumping serve.

Those qualities have served him well in a still-developing career but his limitations tend to be exposed against the game’s very best, as shown by his fourth round demolition by eventual champion Novak Djokovic in last year’s Australian Open.

De Minaur got a measure of revenge when he started the new year by handing world number one Djokovic his first defeat in Australia for six years at the United Cup in Perth.

Sydneysider Jordan Thompson also claimed a notable victory in the new year when he beat Rafa Nadal at the Brisbane International, even if the Spaniard finished the match hampered by injury and subsequently pulled out of the Australian Open.

Former U.S. college player Rinky Hijikata will be the other men’s entrant that home fans will be pinning their hopes on after his surprise run to the U.S. Open fourth round as a wildcard.

The 22-year-old son of Japanese immigrants has qualified for the main draw at Melbourne Park directly for the first time and will also defend his doubles title with Jason Kubler.

Australia has been hoping for a new force in women’s tennis to emerge since Ash Barty’s retirement but Ajla Tomljanovic has been unable to answer the call due to battles with injury.

A three-times Grand Slam quarter-finalist and the woman who sent Serena Williams into retirement at the 2022 U.S. Open, Tomljanovic is on the comeback trail after much of her 2023 season was wiped out by knee surgery.

The Croatian-born 30-year-old estimated before Christmas that she was 15% off her best.

That might be enough to be the host nation’s best chance in the women’s singles, given none of her compatriots are ranked inside the top 100.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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