Dubai: Alexei Popyrin and Roger Federer have something in common. They both started out in tennis as ball kids. Actually, they have two things in common. Both spend much of their time in Dubai, and Alexei would like to get the message out to the Swiss master that if he’s looking for someone to hit with then he’s available. Anytime.
While Federer chased the ball for players in his home city of Basel, Popyrin did the same at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where he now returns as one of those chasing the title and where Tournament Director Salah Tahlak was only too happy to offer him a wild card into this year’s tournament after the 21-year-old last month claimed the first title of his career in Singapore.
The ambitious Australian, born of Russian parents, found himself at the age of eight relocated to Dubai for a couple of years due to his father’s work commitments. And although the family moved on, Popyrin has deep roots in the UAE, including a girlfriend that he met while at school in Dubai.
Popyrin’s return to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium has been a moving experience, bringing back a flood of memories.
“I came out to practise on court and remembered Centre Court being much bigger than it actually is,” he said before his opening match against Dennis Novak. “It’s probably because I was really, really short and much smaller. It’s a beautiful Centre Court and I remember just, you know, just being part of a group with the ball boys, having my friends there around. I remember having lunch and dinner at the back where the ball boys usually were. And, you know, the smells. The smell is very similar and they bring the pictures back of me being a ball kid.”
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Being in the presence of tennis royalty might have been an intimidating experience for a young kid, but that wasn’t the case with Alexei, who made the most of his privileged position.
“Just before the tournament started, I was hitting with Jim Courier on Centre Court and then I had a picture with Ivo Karlovic,” he said. “I was up to his waist at the time. It was definitely, you know, I looked up to a lot of the players. I watched them on TV and you definitely are star-struck when you’re that young. Now I’ve become accustomed to it.”
Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, said: “We have been watching the recent results of Alexei Popyrin with interest, and it is clear that he has a successful career ahead of him,” said “We have been delighted to welcome him back to the stadium where, it could be said, he began his career in the sport, and we wish him all the best in the future.”
Tahlak added: “It is with great pleasure that we welcome Alexei Popyrin back to Dubai as a champion. He has come a very long way since he first took to the courts here as a ball kid, and he is fully deserving of the wild card he has received this week. We look forward to seeing how well he does in the years ahead.”
Popyrin explained that he had many role models while growing up.
“I kinda always switch through my favourite players, but the ones that stuck there were Juan Carlos Del Potro, and Fernando Gonzalez, I think at that time when I lived in Dubai, he was my favourite player,” he said
But it wasn’t his physical and emotional ties to Dubai that earned him a wild card into this year’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. He demonstrated his ability and fighting qualities, and then some, at the recent Australian Open where he came through a thrilling battle with recent Montpellier champion and No. 5 seed at this year’s tournament, David Goffin. The match lasted three hours and 43 minutes and Popyrin had to fight off four match points to reach the next round.
“It was an incredible match. Not only was it a five-setter but I think the crowd pushed me through, definitely on those match points that I saved and throughout the whole match,” he said. “To beat a quality player like David in five sets, I would say he’s one of the fittest players on tour, and to overcome him in five sets is definitely an achievement.
“It was proof that the hard work I put in during pre-season and during last year when times were tough is paying off. Proving that I can beat players of his quality is definitely a confidence booster and I think that carried on into Singapore.”
And it was there, on his way to the title, that Popyrin produced another significant victory, over former US Open champion and Australian Open and Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic.
“Yeah, Marin is an incredible player and his resume speaks for itself,” Popyrin said. “You know former No. 3 in the world, won a Grand Slam, the US Open, and it was a great match. His form has dipped a little in recent times but his quality is still there.”
Popyrin hadn’t been aware of his shared humble beginnings in the game, like Federer standing at the back of the court, retrieving the ball and handing the towel to the players. A similar future, as well as past, would sit well with him.
“I didn’t really know he was a ball kid before, but it’s good footsteps to follow,” he said. “If I can have half the career he’s had then I’ll be happy with it.”