Rising star Alexei Popyrin has the potential to be ranked inside the world’s top 50 by the end of the year, according to Australian tennis legend Todd Woodbridge.
Popyrin yesterday beat world No.46 Alexander Bublik in the final of the Singapore Open, to claim the first ATP title of his career.
It’s been an impressive start to 2021 for the 21-year-old, who defeated 13th seed David Goffin in the opening round of the Australian Open.
The win over Goffin marked the third straight year Popyrin had defeated a seed at Melbourne Park, with his ranking now at a career-high 82.
That’s a rise of 32 places since last week, importantly moving him inside the cut-off for direct entry for the year’s remaining Grand Slam tournaments.
“The feeling of winning your first title is one of relief,” Woodbridge told Wide World of Sports. “Winning one at a young age is a signal of that continual improvement, and a sign that you’ve still got plenty of growth ahead.
“Alexei’s game is hugely dangerous, but still with a lot of potential to improve and get even better, and that’s what’s exciting.
“The serve is a weapon, and so is the forehand, and you need weapons to get to that extra level.”
Popyrin’s serve was on song against Bublik, with the Australian firing down 11 aces in the 4-6, 6-0, 6-2 victory. Remarkably, he lost just one point on serve across the final two sets, holding to love on six straight occasions.
“To be able to serve at that level really bodes well for future Grand Slams,” Woodbridge explained. “One thing we talk about is the physicality of playing five sets, and if you go to five sets you want a lot of cheap, quick service games.
“You don’t want to be working really hard just to hold serve in the fourth or fifth set.
“That’s the sign you’re looking for in someone who might have the potential to go deep at a major.
“Now we need to see everything else keep developing, like the volleying and the movement, because at 21, and 196 centimetres, the most important thing is making sure his body holds up in the next couple of years.
“When he’s 25 or 26 or 27 he needs to be in the best physical shape of his career, because that’s when he’s going to do real damage.”
While Popryin swept aside an increasingly powerless Bublik in the final, Woodbridge says his semi-final win over Marin Cilic was the highlight of the week.
Recovering from a break down in the first set, Popyrin prevailed 7-6, 7-6 over the 2014 US Open champion.
It was Popyrin’s first ATP semi-final appearance.
“Again, that just proves to you that you belong, and you can compete at that level,” Woodbridge said. “To beat Cilic in a semi-final, he has enough experience to know how to play well at the back end of a tournament.
“Cilic is very hungry to get his ranking heading back in the right direction, so that’s as an impressive win as anything for Alexei.
“For me that’s the big one from the week, because Cilic had won three matches to get to that stage, it was the stand-out.”
Popyrin made the third round of the 2020 Australian Open, then didn’t win another main-draw match on the ATP tour for the rest of the year.
Woodbridge noted that he’d done plenty of work in the off-season, with the rewards for that work now being realised.
“The last couple of Australian Opens have been a really good springboard for Alexei,” he said. “He’s made a couple of third rounds, which makes you think you belong.
“The win over Goffin will have given him another boost, so, it’s not a real surprise that he’s won a title, even though his ranking was down at 114.
“You’d think the way he’s playing, being ranked inside the top 50 is an achievable goal for this year.”
Born in Sydney to Russian parents, Popyrin moved overseas when he was just eight, firstly to Dubai and then to Spain, giving him the exposure to clay courts so often denied to up-and-coming Australian players.
That move paid off in 2017, when he became just the fifth Australian to win the French Open boys title, joining an elite list that also includes Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Phil Dent.
“This is where many people don’t realise how development is such a long game,” Woodbridge noted. “Alexei has been on the Tennis Australia radar since he was 12, even though he spent a lot of time overseas.
“He worked with Riccardo Piatti, who coaches Jannik Sinner, and he’s always had good coaches and made some good choices. He’s a good student and takes in knowledge well.
“Alexei has the good gift of taking the positives out of everybody he’s worked with, some players don’t do that.
“To me that’s a sign of someone who desperately wants to be a great player.”
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