MELBOURNE– Like a dramatic soap opera, tennis in Australia can get very intense and passionate. It wasn’t too long ago that former Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt was yelling “come on” at the top of his lungs after a big point in a match. The Australian fans come out in full force for their national Open, where “Aussie Aussie Aussie” chants can be heard from all corners of Melbourne Park.
On Thursday night, it was the unlikeliest of Aussies to rise to the occasion. Alexei Popyrin and Alex Bolt, two Australian wild cards, both advanced to the third round, knocking off seeded players Dominic Thiem and Gilles Simon respectively. With drama surrounding the Australian Davis Cup team at an all-time high, it is a timely distraction to have two Aussies shining in front of their raucous home fans.
Hewitt Entangled in Davis Cup Mess
To Australia, Lleyton Hewitt is a national hero. A former World No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion, Hewitt’s passion and energy has captivated tennis fans worldwide. His success got him the title of being the country’s Davis Cup captain.
But with the Australian Open occurring this week, Hewitt has been entangled in drama. Earlier this week, Bernard Tomic, once considered to be the next top Australian tennis player, fired attacks at Hewitt. He stated that “no one liked him anymore” and that he shouldn’t be the Davis Cup captain.
“Go away,” Tomic said of Hewitt. “Like, literally. If you’ve retired, why are you still in tennis?”
Hewitt stood up for himself and fired back at Tomic, trying to restore order for his Davis Cup team.
“We’re trying to set cultural standards for the Davis Cup and representing Australia. He hasn’t really been close to those for in the last couple of years,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt accused Tomic of blackmail and physical threats. As Davis Cup captain, it is clear that the former Grand Slam champion wanted to help young Tomic. But sometimes, relationships don’t always work out. Tomic and Hewitt are no longer on speaking terms, adding more friction to a Davis Cup team that is looking for answers.
“At the end of the day he still kept making the same mistakes, For me, it was probably the abuse that I copped from him that in the end I drew a line in the sand, and I haven’t spoken to him since,” says Hewitt.
“It will (continue). He won’t play Davis Cup while I have anything to do with it.”
Popyrin and Bolt Provide Much Needed Distraction
Sometimes, in the midst of tumultuous times, a distraction is required. For Australian tennis fans, having two wild cards advance to the third round is the perfect medicine to overshadow the drama with the Davis Cup team.
Alexei Popyrin entered the Australian Open as a 19-year-old. Playing tennis since the age of four, Popyrin quickly rose within the junior ranks. He won the Junior French Open title in 2017 and a Challenger last summer in China. Despite receiving wild cards to both Brisbane and Sydney, he would lose in the first round in both.
But against Dominic Thiem, Popyrin would finally get his chance to shine. Modeling his game after Juan Martin Del Potro, Popyrin utilized his powerful ground strokes to catch Thiem off balance. He noticed Thiem was injured early on in the match and took advantage of it. After winning the first two sets 7-5, 6-4, Thiem was forced to retire. Popyrin, who many thought shouldn’t have been chosen as a wild card ahead of fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis, is now into the third round.
“It was unreal,” said Popyrin after the match. “I really enjoy playing on these big stadiums with massive crowds. It was a great experience.”
Before Popyrin’s win, journeyman Alex Bolt was taking on French legend Gilles Simon. Before the Australian Open, Bolt was considering retirement. But with many of his counterparts playing well into their 30s, the Aussie decided to give it one last try.
His decision paid off. The World No. 155 played all-or-nothing tennis, showcasing flashy ground strokes and mixing up his shots. With 11 aces and winning 68 percent of his first serve points, Bolt caught Simon off guard. In over four hours and five sets, Bolt pulled off the impossible, knocking off Simon to advance to the third round. In a sea of cheers from the Australian crowd, the win would be extra special for Bolt, who had been battling injuries throughout his entire career.
“I’m extremely proud of myself. It’s been an unbelievable week so far. Hopefully I can keep it going,” said Bolt.
The Davis Cup drama isn’t going away. But for Lleyton Hewitt and the country of Australia, it’s important to pause and throw their support over to Popyrin and Bolt, who against all odds are on a terrific run at the Australian Open.
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