John McEnroe has paid Australian Alex de Minaur the ultimate compliment before the teenager’s box-office Australian Open showdown with Rafael Nadal, declaring the teenager a grand slam champion in the making.
The tennis legend also ranked de Minaur alongside Nadal, Jimmy Connors, Michael Chang and Lleyton Hewitt as one of the most ferociously competitive players tennis has ever seen.
“There’s very few guys that come along that play with that intensity, that effort that Alex de Minaur plays with,” the former world No.1 told Channel Nine.
“So they (his rivals) are intimidated by a guy who goes out and gives that all-out 100 per cent every single point like it’s the last point.”
But for all his gushing praise, McEnroe believes de Minaur’s best chance of advancing to the last 16 on Friday night – given his gruelling workload of seven matches in the past 10 days – rests with Nadal’s battered body breaking down again.
The Spaniard only completed one hardcourt tournament in 2018 and was forced to quit during last year’s quarter-finals in Melbourne with a hip injury.
“The good news is he’s 19, so the body bounces back a lot quicker,” McEnroe said of Australia’s big young hope.
“The fact that he had to go five sets against a qualifier and Rafa, who hasn’t played much, won easily and likes to make matches physical.
“The question is how is he (Nadal) going to feel? He hasn’t played a tournament since the US Open. Will the body, like last year, betray him?
“That’s really, to me, de Minaur’s hope this particular event.
“I mean, the guy’s coming along for sure (as a future) top-10 player, possibly, to me, a multiple grand slam winner if he can fill out a little bit more.
“But for this match, given what’s happened, it’s going to be a tall order to bounce back and give what it takes.
“We know he’ll give 100 per cent, but against Rafa you need like 120 per cent.”
De Minaur says taking on Nadal will be his biggest test.
“Whenever he steps out on court, he always has that presence. No one can take that away from him,” de Minaur said of the 17-time grand slam winner.
I’ve just got to go out there, try to focus on my side of the court, generally just go out there, have fun. Hopefully take it to him.”
Seeded 27 after only cracking the world’s top 100 last June, de Minaur is riding a seven-match winning streak that included his first ATP title in Sydney.
While compatriots Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic have attracted negative headlines after first-round exits, de Minaur has garnered support with his fighting spirit.
“Every time I step out on court, I leave 150 per cent out there. That’s the bare minimum,” he said after battling to a 6-4 6-2 6-7 (9-7) 4-6 6-3 triumph over Henri Laaksonen on Wednesday.
“You want the players in the locker room to know you as that kid that fights ’til the end, has that never-say-die attitude.”
Thursday afternoon’s big matches
Japanese eighth seed Kei Nishikori was pushed to a final-set tiebreak before overcoming towering Croatian veteran Ivo Karlovic 6-3 7-6 (8-6) 5-7 5-7 7-6 (9-7) in almost four hours.
Czech seventh seed Karolina Pliskova suffered a first-set scare against American Madison Brengle before succeeding 4-6 6-1 6-0.
Sixth seed Elina Svitolina enjoyed an easier route to her third consecutive Australian Open third round, breezing past Viktoria Kuzmova 6-4 6-1.
Canadian Milos Raonic has held his nerve to win three successive tiebreaks and send 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka packing in the second round at Melbourne Park.
In a match lasting just over four hours that began under open skies and finished with the roof closed on Rod Laver Arena following a rain delay, Raonic triumphed 6-7 (4-7) 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (13-11) 7-6 (7-5).
That is hard to describe. It feels like four hours passed by in 15 minutes,” Raonic said.
“In the heat of the battle, the adrenaline takes over.
“You try to do everything you can each and every point.
“I was very fortunate to stay alive in that fourth set.
“I am thankful that it was indoors. I do a little bit better indoors than I do outdoors … thank you for raining.”
Raonic’s third-round opponent will be Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who equalled his best grand slam result by upsetting last year’s surprise semi-finalist Hyeon Chung.
Herbert triumphed 6-2 1-6 6-2 6-4 against the No.24 seed from South Korea.
Nishikori will play German Philipp Kohlschreiber or Portugal’s Joao Sousa in the third round on Saturday.
Italian No.12 seed Fabio Fognini also benefitted by saving his best for the tiebreaks, downing Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer 7-6 (7-3) 6-3 7-6 (7-5) to set up a third-round battle with Pablo Carreno Busta from Spain.
The 23th-seeded Carreno Busta beat Ilya Ivashka from Belarus 6-2 6-3 7-6 (9-7).