Alexei Popyrin.
Alexei Popyrin has booked a second round meeting with Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. Image by James Ross/AAP PHOTOS
  • tennis

Popyrin respectful but unfazed about Djokovic showdown

Darren Walton January 16, 2024

Alexei Popyrin is refusing to believe he will be simply more fodder for Novak Djokovic after booking a second-round blockbuster with the 10-time Australian Open champion.

Popyrin dispelled lingering fitness concerns with an impressive 6-3 7-6 (7-3) 6-2 defeat of wildcard and great mate Marc Polmans in the first of two all-Australian match-ups on Monday.

A late scratching from last week’s Adelaide International after being troubled by a back complaint in Brisbane, Popyrin moved and swung freely in living up to his Australian No.2 status with a steely straight-sets win.

The world No.43 crunched 20 aces, won all 14 of his service games and broke Polmans four times in progressing in two hours and 28 minutes on John Cain Arena.

Now the 24-year-old is relishing a crack at Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena, most likely on Wednesday night.

Alexei Popyrin.
 Popyrin last played Djokovic five years ago. Image by James Ross/AAP PHOTOS 

In the form of his career, the prodigious Popyrin – Australia’s only French Open junior champion in the last 55 years – insists he can bring down the GOAT.

“I don’t want to go in there just thinking, ‘Oh, he’s probably the greatest of all time and all that’. I admire what he’s done. He probably is the greatest of all time,” Popyrin said.

“But there is no point going into the court if I don’t believe that I can.

“I need to have that confidence going in and the belief going in that I can win the match and that he is just the world No.1, and he is just another player for me on the opposite side of the net.

“I need to focus on what I have to do on the court. I have big weapons in my game that I believe can do some damage.”

Popyrin lost his only previous encounter with Djokovic in straight sets in Tokyo – a long time ago.

“I played him when I was 19 years old,” the underdog said.

“I just broke the top 100 when I played him, qualified for that tournament. I remember that I was physically just not up to par to him.

“Now I’m 24 years old, five years later, a bit more experienced, bit more mature, a bit physically stronger. I would say much more physically stronger.

“I’ve improved since then. Looking forward to going out there and we’ll see what I can bring.”

Novak Djokovic.
 Novak Djokovic may be the ‘GOAT’, but Popyrin says he’ll be backing himself against the Serb. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

With two forays to the last 32 and wins over former US Open champion Dominic Thiem, 2008 AO finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and fellow top-10 stars Taylor Fritz and David Goffin, Melbourne Park has definitely been the happiest of Popyrin’s grand slam hunting grounds.

Popyrin was among four Australians to advance on day two of the Open, including 10th seed Alex de Minaur, who was leading Milos Raonic 6-7 (6-8) 6-3 2-0 when the former Wimbledon quarter-finalist retired with a hip flexor injury.

Jordan Thompson outlasted Aleksandar Vukic 3-6 7-6 (7-3) 6-2 3-6 6-4 in another all-Aussie affair, an epic that stretched more than four hours.

Thompson’s reward is a clash with seventh seed and last year’s Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Jordan Thompson
 Jordan Thompson earned a second-round clash with Stefanos Tsitsipas. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

Doubles world No.1 Storm Hunter reached the women’s singles second round in Melbourne for the first time after continuing her run from qualifying with a 6-4 6-3 victory over former French Open runner-up Sara Errani.

But James Duckworth suffered his fourth heartbreaking five-set defeat at Melbourne Park, this time 6-7 (7-2) 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-3 to Frenchman Luca Van Assche.

Former US Open junior champion Omar Jasika’s gallant run from qualifying came to a halt with a 7-6 (7-4) 6-4 6-2 loss to Polish ninth seed Hubert Hurkacz.

Rinky Hijikata’s match finished after well after midnight with the fearless youngster falling in five-sets to 24th seed Jan-Lennard Struff 3-6 6-3 6-2 6-7 (7-2) 7-6 (10-8).

It was the German’s first win at the Open since 2018.

In the women’s event, youngster Taylah Preston was no match for Ukraine’s former world No. 3 Elina Svitolina, falling 6-2 6-3 to the 19th seed.

Fellow wildcard Daria Saville was unable to maintain the form she showed in reaching the Hobart International semi-finals, falling 6-7 (7-5) 6-3 7-5 to Poland’s Magdalena Frech.