Alexei Popyrin’s 2022 campaign could not have finished quickly enough for the young Australian.
He began the year with a respectable ranking of 61, but endured a horror campaign that saw his confidence plummet after winning just five matches on the ATP Tour and finishing ranked 113 in the world.
But the 2023 Popyrin model is built of stronger stuff.
Already this month, he has chalked up more wins than he managed during last year’s entire season, just in the space of two tournaments.
Two of those victories have come against top-10 opponents, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz, the second of which lit up the Australian Open on day four.
Facing the eighth-seeded American, Popyrin — who needed a wildcard to gain entry into the main draw at Melbourne Park — was expected to give a good account of himself, but went into the match as the clear underdog.
Just over four hours later, Popyrin emerged the victor in a five-set thriller, winning 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/2), 6-4, 6-7 (6/8), 6-2 to book a berth in the third round.
What followed were emotional scenes, with the packed John Cain Arena crowd screaming “Popyrin, Popyrin”, while the 23-year-old choked up with tears as he soaked up the atmosphere.
“For me, it was really emotional coming through that match, having the crowd chanting your name,” Popyrin told reporters at Melbourne Park.
“I’ll never forget it.”
Changes to Popyrin’s support team in the build-up to 2023 has had much to do with the reversal of his fortunes.
Former Belgian professional Xavier Malisse joined his coaching staff last October and the two formed an immediate bond that Popyrin feels is paying dividends.
“It felt like it was me and ‘X’ (Malisse) playing against Taylor,” Popyrin said.
“We were so mentally locked in, both of us. I was looking at him, he was looking at me all the time. We had eye contact after every point.
“I knew what he was thinking. He knew what I was thinking. We were in it together.
“That’s not something you get with every single coach. You have to have a really special connection, a special bond that we’ve kind of built up since I’ve known him.”
Popyrin will face another American, 92nd-ranked Ben Shelton, in the third round at Melbourne Park, a stage of the tournament he has reached twice before.
It is not false bravado that has Popyrin backing himself to win against Shelton, but rather it is his growing confidence on the back of his positive start to 2023.
“I think going into every tournament, you want to go all the way,” Popyrin said.
“For me, with the way I’m playing now, I think I have a good chance to win the next round. That’s all that I’m looking towards, is the next round. I’m not looking forward.
“I don’t know who I play in the fourth round, quarterfinals, semifinals. For me, the third round is the key.”
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