Take a deep breath and say it after me: An Aussie tennis player could win next year’s Australian Open.
I know, hard to believe, but as Ash Barty and Alex de Minaur shared the Newcombe Medal for 2018, the impossible dream for Australian tennis fans had a heartbeat.
Barty and de Minaur were named joint winners of Australia’s top individual tennis honour at an awards ceremony in Melbourne on Tuesday night.
Both had outstanding 2018 campaigns. Barty finished the year as Australia’s topped ranked player at No.15 in the world.
Meanwhile, de Minaur’s rise to prominence saw the teenager’s ranking skyrocket from 208 to a season-ending 30 and he was named as ATP Newcomer of The Year.
— 7 News Brisbane (@7NewsBrisbane) November 10, 2018
The Sydneysider fronted the media alongside Barty and admitted that it had been a meteoric journey this year.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a year, lots of things I never really expected coming into 2018,” he said.
“If they would have told me where I was going to finish, I never would have believed them. I’ve enjoyed every second of it and it’s given me a real hunger for more.”
Home game goals
Barty returned to the tennis circuit in 2016 after a two-year self-imposed exile from the game, which included a stint playing Big Bash cricket with Brisbane Heat.
Her renaissance gathered real momentum this year. Barty won 46 singles matches in 2018, winning two WTA tour singles titles and partnering CoCo Vandeweghe to win a maiden grand slam doubles crown at the US Open.
Barty, who has now won back-to-back Newcombe Medals, is looking to make her mark on the Australian summer circuit.
“It’s been an amazing year. To be able to share it with Alex is special. We’ve both had incredible years. Now we are gearing up to go big and play in front of our home crowd,” Barty said.
“I think I’ve put myself in a position where I can do well. It’s about going out there and executing my game and having fun and really soaking up the Australian atmosphere.
“It’s the best time of the year where we get the support of the home crowd. We get to really enjoy it. There’s nothing like playing at home.”
Barty is building towards a tilt at a grand slam event.
She was a finalist in Sydney at the start of the year and made semi-finals in Strasbourg, Montreal and Wuhan, as well as reaching a career-best fourth-round run at the US Open in addition to her two title successes.
She believes her game is ready to take on the challenges of the second week of a major tournament.
“We’re certainly doing all the right things. It was nice to make it to the second week of the US Open. I have a little bit more experience with that now and I’ve been there with doubles as well,” she said.
“I’d love to do it here at the Australian Open.”
Next generation of stars
Australia has seen a number of false dawns as promising junior careers have withered under the intense pressure of big-time tennis.
Players such as Brydan Klein and Luke Saville have won junior grand slam titles in recent years but have failed to translate that into success on tour.
But de Minaur seems to have no such issues.
“I think it’s self-belief, believing that I belong there and backing myself. They’re the most important things and they are the things that have clicked for me lately,” he said.
“You’ve got to be mentally strong and mentality is one of the most important things when you’re out there on a tennis court.
“I love being out on court. It’s about never giving up and fighting for every ball. That’s something I want to be known for.”
Barty and de Minaur are young, talented, ambitious and humble.
It’s a godsend for Tennis Australia, which has seen prodigious talents like Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios embroiled in controversy and subject to allegations of poor sportsmanship and a lack of respect for the game.
De Minaur said he is mindful that he has a wider responsibility to the sport every time he plays.
“I think it’s really important to set a standard for yourself. Every time you step out on court you want to be at that level,” he told The New Daily.
“The aim is to leave it all out there, have the right attitude and show that fighting spirit. It’s what Ash and I do every time we step out on the court.”
If they can do that at Melbourne Park in January, the tsunami of support from Australia’s long-suffering tennis fans might carry them a few steps closer to ending one of Australian sport’s longest droughts.