Popyrin: Why Family Is Everything To Me

‘Pack up your bag.’

I was a nine-year-old walking out of school in Dubai when my dad told me that. He had spoken to my teacher and said I would be missing the next two weeks to compete in a tournament in Croatia. That was the beginning of it all.

Born in Australia, I started playing tennis when I was quite young. We moved to Dubai when I was eight due to my father’s work. But until that point, I had only played after school. Sometimes I would miss a Friday to compete in a tournament in the United Arab Emirates, but this was different. I had never been to Europe. I had never played on clay. I was happy with missing two weeks of school, but traveling so far for tennis? That was unbelievable!

I was still playing soccer at school and was pretty good at it. I was the striker and the coach, former Premier League player Carlton Palmer, was trying to convince my mom that I should quit tennis. He thought I could make it in soccer, but said I couldn’t do both. My mom told him to come watch me on the tennis court and when he did he was like, ‘Yep, stick to tennis!’

I didn’t know it at the time, but that trip to Croatia would serve as a test from my  to see how my level compared to kids from around the world, including Alex de Minaur and Nicola Kuhn. We packed our bags and me, my mom, dad, my brother, my little sister and my grandma all went to Croatia. Family is everything to me, so as much as I remember some of my matches, I have plenty of stories of car rides like that one with them.

From 10 to 17 we moved to Spain and throughout those years we would travel for three months at a time going from tournament to tournament, from Italy to Slovakia to Slovenia and so on. My brother Anthony, who is a year younger than me, would also be playing the tournaments and my little sister Sonia, who was in kindergarten, would go too. Anthony and I would be in the back of the car being pains in the a**** and my dad, who was driving, would be screaming at us. My mom was there and so was my grandma, who was always solving her Sudoku puzzles during the ride.

We had TVs in the car and at that time we didn’t know how to download movies on the computer. There was no Netflix back then, so we would just watch a couple movies we had and travel across Europe in the car with the whole family.

A lot of the time we would rent a house for a week or two at a tournament. My mom tried to find the cheapest possible option, which was tough because we needed a huge space. There were six of us, and we would have needed three rooms at a hotel. My parents did not want my brother and I to stay in the same room because we would never fall asleep. We would be up until 3 or 4 a.m. and need to be up at 7 a.m. the next morning. We would act crazy! We would stay up all hours just talking, watching sports, YouTube, all that stuff.

We’re the sort of family that likes to stick together and I still enjoy living at home with my parents and my little sister. Looking back at those moments, it was so awesome having the whole family there. I didn’t fully realise this at the time, but my family sacrificed everything to enable my brother and I to chase our dreams.

About a year after that first tournament in Croatia, my parents sold our house in Sydney, where we lived until I was eight. I didn’t see it as a big deal at the time because we didn’t live there, and hadn’t for three years. But that’s a bloody big deal!

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That’s the place in Australia where we called home, where we would have returned if things went wrong. If I suffered an injury or wanted to go back to school, what would have happened? Our safe haven was gone. My family was fully invested in our tennis. Parents are the ones who believe in you the most, and mine showed it in my brother and me.

I always said my brother had more talent and hit the ball better than I did. Unfortunately at 14 he suffered an unlucky injury in the bone on his toe. It took him a year and a half to recover and that set him back. If it wasn’t for his injuries, he would have been where I am too. He’s still my best friend and I’m his best friend. We text every single day and we know that we’re there for each other all the time.

Another thing you should know about me is that I’m super competitive. I’ve never wanted to lose anything, whether it was a game of football, a board game or PlayStation. If I didn’t want to lose in those, you could imagine how competitive I am on the tennis court. I think that competitive spirit shows in my game.

I’ve always had the belief that I was going to become a professional. I never doubted myself for one second. The older I got, the more I understood what goes with being a professional. We’re trying to get to the top, and I adjusted to that. My family adjusted to that, too. They made more sacrifices and I worked harder and focussed more.

When I was 17, I started to break through on the ATP Tour and that is when the pressure came. I had finished juniors, wasn’t making the money to support myself and that is when it hit me. ‘S***, if I don’t make it, then all of this is for nothing.’ You’re on a one-way street from there on out. My dream was to become a professional tennis player and if that didn’t happen, I would have considered it a failure. That was the pressure that I felt the most.

<img src="https://sportblogg.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/popyrin-singapore-2021-sunday-trophy.jpg" alt="Alexei Popyrin owns an 8-2 record in 2021.”>
Photo Credit: Singapore Tennis Open
Last year was the best of my career, winning my first ATP Tour title in Singapore and reaching a career-high No. 59 in the world. I’m working hard every day so that the best is still to come.

The Australian Open is particularly important to me. Not only do I love competing at my home Slam, but that’s where I grew up as a young kid. I still remember sitting in the stands when Lleyton Hewitt beat Marcos Baghdatis in a match that ended at 4:33 a.m. I dreamt of being part of those moments myself one day.

I’ve always loved playing on the big stage. I’ve always believed that when I got there to compete in front of thousands of people, I would feel at home. Now, I truly feel I belong in those moments.

The fact that my parents always believed in me really helped with that. They were always encouraging me and were there whenever I needed them. My mom was travelling with me everywhere and my dad was a phone call away. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it. Yet here I am, and I hope I will continue to make them proud.

– As told to Andrew Eichenholz

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Nadal Soars To Melbourne Title

Rafael Nadal marked his return to the ATP Tour in style Sunday, downing American qualifier Maxime Cressy 7-6(6), 6-3 to lift the Melbourne Summer Set trophy.

The Spaniard was playing for the first time since August this week after a foot injury curtailed his 2021 season. However, the World No. 6 showed little sign of rustiness in Melbourne, not dropping a set at the ATP 250 event to earn his 89th tour-level crown.

“I want to thank all the organisation here,” Nadal said during the trophy ceremony. “I feel privileged and a very lucky guy to be here again. I am coming back from some challenging moments in terms of injuries, so I can’t be happier. It means a lot to be back and with a trophy in my hands.”

In an entertaining match, Cressy attacked Nadal with his high-flying serve-and-volley game, but the Spaniard returned well throughout and showed great fight. The 35-year-old saved a set point in the first-set tie-break and rallied from a break down in the second set, before eventually triumphing after one hour and 44 minutes.

“This court has always been very, very special for me,” Nadal said. “The Rod Laver Arena is very, very special for everyone and it is more special because of you guys. You guys are a great crowd and I can’t thank you enough.”

Nadal was competing in his first final on Australian soil since losing to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open championship match in 2019. With his victory, the top seed has now continued his run of clinching at least one tour-level title every year since 2004.

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In their first ATP Head2Head meeting, little separated the pair in the first set, with Cressy raising his level in the key moments as he saved all five break points he faced to force a tie-break. Nadal looked to penetrate from the baseline with his heavy topspin forehand and tried to find the toes of Cressy on return, but the World No. 112 held firm and moved to set point at 6/5 in the tie-break.

However, he was unable to find another first serve in the set, with Nadal capitalising to move ahead. The Spaniard then rallied from a break down in the second set, firing seven aces in the set to secure his victory.

Cressy was competing in his first tour-level final after standout wins over second seed Reilly Opelka, against whome he saved two match points, and third seed Grigor Dimitrov. Cressy will rise into the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings for the first time on Monday following his dream run in Melbourne.

Monfils Fends Off Khachanov To Clinch Adelaide Title

Top seed Gael Monfils captured his 11th ATP Tour title Sunday, overcoming Karen Khachanov 6-4, 6-4 in the Adelaide International 1 final to begin his season in perfect fashion.

The Frenchman, who was competing in his first Australian tour-level championship match, played with flair and demonstrated great agility throughout against Khachanov, closing the net effectively and covering the court well to triumph after 80 minutes.

“I want to say thanks to my team,” Monfils said during the trophy ceremony. “We have had some tough moments, we lost a little bit of faith but we came back strong from July last year. It is amazing to play in front of you guys, to play in front of a full crowd with a good spirit and atmosphere, this is amazing.”

Monfils did not drop a set all week in Adelaide and now leads the Russian 1-0 in their ATP Head2Head series. With his victory, it is the World No. 21’s first tour-level title since February 2020 (Rotterdam).

“It is a great tournament,” Monfils added. “I have been training here since 2009. I know the place very well, I love Adelaide and am very happy to win the title here.”

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In a tight first set, both players looked to dictate on their forehands and outmanoeuvre each other in front of a lively crowd in Adelaide. After fending off two break points at 2-2, Monfils, who hit 11 winners in the first set, found the decisive breakthrough in the 10th game when Khachanov fired a forehand long to move ahead.

Fuelled by momentum, Monfils remained strong on serve in the second set, winning 92 per cent (11/12) of points behind his first delivery in the set and broke Khachanov at 5-4 to seal his victory.

Second-seeded Russian Khachanov overcame Marin Cilic to reach the final in Adelaide and was aiming to win his first title since he clinched the crown at the Rolex Paris Masters in November 2018.