Alexei Popyrin, the Low-Key Grand Slam Specialist

Alexei Popyrin Stockholm Open

Despite being overshadowed by other members of the NextGen, Alexei Popyrin completed a solid 2019 season. Between January and December, the Australian climbed 50 spots in the ATP rankings, from No. 147 to No. 97. As per usual, the glass may look half-full or half-empty.

The Sydney native elected the ambitious route to build up his rank, as opposed to fellow 20-year-old Alejandro Davidovich, who cemented his improvement by shredding the Challenger Tour. Popyrin played only four such tournaments in 2019. Instead, he chose to grind it out on the main tour, and he was required to play qualifying draws at a whopping 19 events.

While Popyrin led the tour in successful qualifying attempts with 11, he struggled to follow through with main draw wins. Overall, the Aussie obtained 11 main draw victories and 19 losses. However, the match breakdown is as weird as it gets.

Half of his points hail from Grand Slams

In 2019, Popyrin was one of only a select few to win one main draw match at every Major. And he didn’t prey on scrubs, precisely. The world No. 95 defeated the likes of Dominic Thiem, Ugo Humbert, and Pablo Carreño.

As a result, 295 out of Popyrin’s 585 points come from Slams. Plus, if you recall his US Open third round match against Metteo Berrettini, he was close to forcing a fifth set. His racket certainly remembers. Therefore, the point distribution could have been even more skewed.

Including his three wins at Wimbledon qualifying, Popyrin posted a robust 9-4 record at Slams. The fact he managed to amass only five main draw wins across 15 non-Slam events is not only befuddling, but arguably the second biggest tennis mystery of the decade, trailing only Robin Soderling’s retirement-provoking mononucleosis after demolishing David Ferrer 6-2 6-2 at the 2011 Bastad final.

One comparison that comes to mind is Thanasi Kokkinakis’ 2015 campaign. As Ryan Harrison can attest, the injury-prone Australian was a qualifying monster in his age-19 season, going 15-2 throughout the year. But Kokkinakis complemented that with a random run at Indian Wells (90 points) or the Bordeaux title (115 points), the lone Challenger he entered all season. Popyrin, on the other hand, only mustered two wins across four challenger events in 2019.

Early in 2020, Popyrin’s gamble to play Doha and Adelaide instead of the Bendigo Challengers did not render positive results. The Aussie failed to add ranking points and is now in real danger of crashing out of the Top 100.

Tsonga, first test in Melbourne

In order to defend the 90 points he collected at the Australian Open last year, Popyrin must reach the round of 32. But the pathway there will be tricky.

Popyrin’s first opponent at Melbourne Park will be former runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Should he upset the No. 28 seed, the 20-year-old would face a more winnable second round against Jaume Munar or Hugo Gaston. World No. 4 Daniil Medvedev would presumably be awaiting in the third round and, let’s be real, unless the pollution only affects Russian citizens next weekend, Popyrin is not advancing any further.

For the first time in his career, Popyrin’s ATP ranking might receive a serious setback. But he should not look at the Australian Open as a make or break competition. No matter what happens, he must not fall into despair. Maybe re-evaluate and tweak his schedule a little bit, but that’s it. Bright things are in store.

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