Appearances can be deceptive, says Alexei Popyrin with a smile.
Between points, he doesn’t so much march business-like around a tennis court as lazily saunter.
His hero is Lleyton Hewitt. Yet where old Rusty’s manic determination seemed to ooze from every pore, young ‘Pop’ comes over as fantastically laid-back.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be, or look as intense as Hewitt, but I believe I don’t have to really look intense to really fight for every point,” the rising star of Australian tennis tells AAP.
“I’m a laid-back person, always have been. Always been one to walk slow and not really act like I care.
“I’ve been told my walk is kind of cocky, but I can’t change it. It’s how I’ve walked since I was a kid.
“But don’t be fooled. I definitely do fight for every point even if I do look laid back on the court.
“Even when I’m walking calmly, I’m still believing in myself, still pumping myself up inside even if doesn’t seem in an intensive way – and that seems to work for me.”
It’s working beautifully.
Popyrin’s having a breakthrough year; beating David Goffin at the Australian Open, winning his first ATP title in Singapore, scaring the life out of Daniil Medvedev in Miami and rocketing up the rankings by over 50 places to No.62.
Now, to the toughest job in tennis. Taking on Rafael Nadal in his Paris red clay kingdom in the first round of the French Open.
Sydneysider Popyrin – Pop or Poppy to his mates – promised earlier this month after being beaten in straight sets by the clay-court GOAT in Madrid that he’d give Nadal a tougher challenge next time around.
Why not? Nadal himself noted the “amazing” power of the tall Poppy, whose beanpole frame packs an astonishing whiplash punch. Does anyone in the game currently hit the ball harder?
At 21, Popyrin himself believes it’s a gift that can take him all the way to the top.
“Hopefully, I can be the world No.1,” he says.
“It’s been the goal ever since I was a little kid. I believe I can do it but I know it’ll take a lot of hard work, dedication, a lot more time and a lot more effort to improve.
“But I’m willing to put in the work to do that. I don’t think I should be in this sport if I don’t believe I can be world No.1.
“So I do believe it. It’s the motivation that gets me going every single day, that gets me into practice today, that gets me into the gym at 6am in the morning.”
Tennis has been raving about brilliant teenage Italian Jannik Sinner this year, but Popyrin, just two years older, blew him away in Madrid.
“I think I can go more than him (Sinner) to be honest,” says Popyrin.
“All us youngsters have potential – Sinner, Felix (Auger-Aliassime), Shapo (Denis Shapovalov), Demon (Alex de Minaur), (Sebastian) Korda, (Alejandro Davidovich) Fokina.
“All guys ranked inside the top-100 and under 22 have immense potential, and I think we can all battle for that No.1 spot.”
On his day, the former French junior champ has the ‘pop’ to beat anyone – and under German coach Benny Ebrahimzadeh, is developing what he says is “a game for all surfaces.”
He’s had a nomadic tennis existence, after spells living away from Sydney with his supportive mum and dad in Dubai, Spain and, for the past four years, at the Mouratoglou Academy in Nice.
He misses Australia with the pandemic making a return during the season impossible but hopes the tennis-loving public back home will have seen enough already to recognise here’s a player with a touch of star quality.
“I think they do know,” he says. “It’s just up to me to show them that I can actually fulfil my potential.
“I’d love to be able to do it in front of them every single week, but I have to go on a world tour to show what I can do.”
Next stop, Paris and Senor Nadal.