EXCLUSIVE: Alex de Minaur on family, focus and the fast road to fame

The tennis player has just become No. 10…

In early January 2024, tennis player Alex de Minaur defeated world No.1 Novak Djokovic in straight sets during the United Cup.

It was the biggest win of Alex’s career so far, and led to him becoming the first Australian man to make his top-10 debut since Lleyton Hewitt did so in May 2000.

The Weekly spoke exclusively with Alex a few years ago when his tennis career was first ramping up, and the following article appeared in our February 2019 issue. Enjoy!

When Alex de Minaur started 2018 as the Davis Cup squad’s water boy, he was eager and brimming with optimism, but he could never have guessed that by the year’s end he would be Australia’s highest-ranked tennis player.

From a water carrier in January to certified contender in December, there were many times when the world glimpsed something in the whip-fast player that those closest to him had always known: the teenager has the potential to go all the way.

Consider one moment during the Davis Cup play-off tie in September 2018. Sydney-born de Minaur is locked in battle with Austria’s Dominic Thiem on the unyielding red clay court in Graz, in Thiem’s home country.

Thiem is six years de Minaur’s senior and ranked No. 8 in the world. It’s breakpoint and Thiem has the advantage. De Minaur tosses the ball high and serves.

As the opponents rally, they seem evenly matched – the broad-shouldered man in red and white who holds 11 world titles and the youth in green and gold, who is yet to claim one. De Minaur moves close to the net and volleys.

Thiem sends the ball back, lobbing it high and deep into de Minaur’s court. The younger competitor scrambles – the ball is heading for the baseline. It lands just inside, a precision shot.

De Minaur’s shoes squeak as he races to catch it on the bounce. The crowd ripples, thinking Thiem has the point. But de Minaur lunges and draws back his racquet. It connects to the sound of a cheer and the ball flies back across the net to the Austrian.

As the rally continues, de Minaur strikes with power and slices the ball forcefully. Thiem chases and misses. The point goes to the teen and the crowd erupts.

The scene is typical of the sort of relentless tennis Alex “the Demon” de Minaur is becoming known for. Ultimately, the match goes to Thiem, who has slayed such giants as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

alex de minaur
The Weekly did an exclusive interview with Alex in 2019.

But de Minaur has left an impression. “Alex has proved he’s world class this year,” Thiem said afterwards.

Three months later, Alex is sitting on his hands in an air-conditioned hotel room in Melbourne with a huge grin on his face. He’s dressed head-to-toe in sports clobber provided by ASICS, who sponsor him, and has two thin lines shaved into the side of his hair.

“It’s been a year that I never really expected,” he says. “If someone had told me at the start of the year that I was going to finish where I have…” he shakes his head, beaming.

“It’s been a whirlwind. Full of highs, and I’ve just really enjoyed every second of it. It’s given me a hunger for bigger and better things.”

Alex ended his stellar year by winning the ATP Newcomer Award, and a few weeks later, picked up The Newcomb Medal for outstanding achievements in Australian tennis, which he shared with Ashleigh Barty.

But as he chats with The Weekly, relaying the highs of the past month, there’s something else the Sydney-born young gun is excited about. “I got my driver’s licence,” he says.

Australia’s highest ranked tennis player is just 19 years old.

The son of a Spanish mother and Uruguayan father, Alex is back in Australia after a short trip to the picturesque Alicante in Spain. It was there he took a rest from training and dedicated his time to learning to drive.

“I would have been really annoyed if I’d failed,” he says. You get the impression it’s not something that happens often.

“He’s got the right approach,” says David Drysdale, who manages Alex and his mentor, Lleyton Hewitt. “He’s not looking at: where am I going? What ranking am I going to be at the end of next year? He’s just taking it week by week and thinking, ‘I’m just going to continue to work and continue to learn and see what happens, which is the right approach.’”

alex de minaur and his mum
Alex and his mum, Esther.

Following his Davis Cup debut in February 2018, at just 18, Alex has been on a sharp ascent. With the support of Lleyton, David and his coach Adolfo Gutierrez, Alex has clawed his way from world No. 208 at the end of 2017, to No. 31 in December.

By the time this article went to print he had climbed higher still, to No. 29.

He was a surprise choice for the first-round Davis Cup tie last January, when he faced off against World No. 5 Alex Zverev. But his performance at the Sydney International left Davis Cup captain Hewitt with little choice. Alex’s stunning performance against Zverev was described as gallant and set him up for a year of glory.

“It’s a moment that still gives me goosebumps to this day,” Alex says, of stepping onto the court for his Davis Cup debut.

Alex was just three years old when he first picked up a racquet. A preschooler at the time, his fate was sealed when his mother Esther saw a sign advertising Tiny Tots Tennis.

“I bought him a racquet that was big enough and took him to try out,” she says. “He was the only kid who could hit the ball over the net.”

After the first lesson, the tennis coach took Esther aside and said, “You know what, I have seen children this age and older all over the world and I’ve never met a kid as coordinated as your son.” Then he yelled out, “Excuse me, have a look at the next Wimbledon champion here.”

Alex played tennis for two years in Australia and then in Spain from the age of five, when his family relocated there. A keen athlete, he enjoyed and excelled at soccer and golf as well.

But it was tennis that truly captured his heart.

alex de minaur
Alex de Minaur recently defeated Novak Djokovic.

“From four years old he would watch tennis on the TV and he could imitate the exact forehand that so-and-so had,” Esther says. “Lleyton was his idol. He would cry if it was raining and training was cancelled.”

When Alex turned nine, he had a difficult decision to make. “He was very talented at soccer as well and it wasn’t possible to do both,” Esther explains. “I couldn’t take him to the tennis matches and the soccer matches on the weekend. We were going crazy. And I told him he had to choose.”

When Alex chose tennis his soccer coach was livid. “I remember how mad the soccer coach was,” Esther says. He told her: “This kid could be Renaldo. You have no idea what you’re doing!”

“And I said, well, the tennis coach is saying the same thing.”

It turns out the tennis coach was right. “It was not one moment. It was gradual,” Esther says.

“I’ve loved every single moment that I’ve been able to travel with him and watch him. I loved watching him in the Wimbledon juniors. It’s my favourite tournament. It’s so traditional. The grass … the whole place is fantastic.”

Alex gained a wildcard entry into Wimbledon in June but was knocked out in the third round by none other than then world No. 1 Rafael Nadal. Esther came, along with her parents, to watch.

“It was beautiful and they were wide-eyed. It made it even more special,” she says of having her parents by her side. Alex told media after the match that facing Nadal at Wimbledon was “something that I will remember forever”.

“There are no words to describe what it is to watch your son walk into Wimbledon centre court,” Esther says. “It’s just incredible.”

Another of Alex’s idols, Roger Federer, was also a soccer prodigy – a fact often mentioned when sports writers are praising the grand slam champion’s intuitive footwork. One of the things that still takes Alex’s breath away is the fact that he is now encountering tennis greats on tour, and they are taking an interest in him, and recognising his potential.

alex de minaur
“I always make sure every time I step on court I give 150 per cent.”

Roger Federer was no exception. “Every time he sees me, he comes up and says, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ and that sort of thing,” Alex says. “It’s one of those things you don’t expect. I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Despite the negative press some Australian tennis players have attracted recently, Alex paints a picture of a supportive and tight-knit community.

“It’s great in the Davis Cup crew – there’s such great camaraderie,” Alex says. “We’re all trying to push each other, get the best out of each other. If we’re in the same tournaments we go to dinner together. I think that’s why this year we’ve had so many players in the Top 100.” 

This sense of community is important because professional tennis is all-consuming, Alex says. “It’s almost 24/7. You do a lot of travelling, a lot of overseas trips where you’re away from home.”

By the time he was 12 years old, Alex was living back in Sydney and engaged in a punishing training regime at the NSW Tennis Centre at Olympic Park in Homebush. His day started at 8.30am on the tennis court for two hours of training, followed by an hour in the gym.

He’d have 30 minutes for lunch, and then two hours of classwork. At 2.30 he was back on the tennis court before finishing the day in the gym.

“It wasn’t tough because at the end of the day I was doing something that I loved and I enjoyed every second of it,” he says. “This is my passion. It’s also my job, so I’ve got to put myself in the best possible position to enjoy every day.”

Raised in a large, close family which his mother says has struggled financially, as Alex was honing his skills as a sportsman, he would also sometimes be called on to help out at the Italian restaurant that his parents owned.

He loved to take his friends there to “test” the menu, but when it was busy, he would work waiting tables.

“It was tougher than I expected,” he laughs. “Long hours – I learned that I’d probably rather play tennis.”

alex and the hewitt family
Alex with Lleyton and Bec Hewitt, and their son Cruz.

As he progressed through his teenage years, he began travelling through Europe, competing in tournaments. “Probably until I was 16 it didn’t quite sink in that, jeez, I’m almost there and it’s all about to get quite serious soon.”

As Alex talks about the closeness of his family and what their support means to him, he grows more and more animated. The whole troupe, including sisters Sara, 10, Christina, 13 and brother Daniel, 17, joined him for the Milan Next Gen ATP Finals.

And Daniel came along to watch Alex play in the Stockholm Open.

“It was great to have him nearby. He came with my coach. It was a little bit like a guy’s trip,” Alex says.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it and hopefully can get him to travel a bit more.”

His youngest sister, Sara, adores her big brother, and dreams of playing mixed doubles with him, even though they’re nine years apart. “He’s always had a special relationship with Sara, and she idolises him,” Esther says.

With three of her children still in school, Esther can’t get to as many of Alex’s games as she’d like. “Whenever we get the chance, it’s just fantastic,” she says. “And although he doesn’t show it, I know it’s special for him, too.”

“We have always been financially struggling and now, the pride he must have of, ‘Oh I’ll get it for you.’ I can imagine, being 19, that would be a very nice feeling, to be able to say: ‘Hey, you’ve given me a lot, now I’ll give something back.’ I would have loved to have done that for my family.”

As Alex describes hanging out with his brother in Stockholm, his fingers are laced together. His wrist bears a beaded Brazilian bracelet that Daniel gave him, a lucky talisman he hasn’t taken off since it helped him ace that driver’s test in Alicante.

He has also developed a habit of eating the same meal, at the same restaurant, if he’s on a hot streak. His support team gets sick of Italian food, he jokes. But he doesn’t like to get too tied up in superstitions. The most important thing is to develop as a player.

alex and lleyton hewitt
Lleyton is still Alex’s mentor in 2024.

He has time, David says. “It’s become an older game. With Roger and Raffa and Novak, the average age of the players in the top 100 is a lot older now because it’s so physically demanding on the body to play a full year of tennis.”

‘The Demon’ may be diminutive compared to some established champions, but his long, lean limbs span the court with ease. Few balls get past him. He never stays still. His ferocity is what earned him his nickname, David says.

“Because on court he’s like a demon … relentless, annoying because he chases everything down and never gives in.”

It’s a quality he shares with Hewitt: an insatiable hunger for every point.

“I watched a lot of Lleyton growing up and always in mind was his fighting, never say die attitude,” Alex says. “From then on that was always in my head. I always make sure every time I step on court I give 150 per cent.”

“When I got a message from [Lleyton] for the first time, I was like, ‘Jeez, I’ve got Lleyton Hewitt’s number.’ It was crazy. I got invited to my first Davis Cup as an orange boy and from then it’s just been amazing.”

Orange boy, a term borrowed from football, referring to the kid who gives oranges, is like an apprenticeship. When Alex was tapped to take on the role under the tutelage of Lleyton Hewitt, he knew his life was about to change.

As he looks back on his sensational year, he still can’t believe just how much it did. “It’s crazy to see how far I’ve come and that’s where it all started,” he says.

Esther and the rest of the family will be watching and cheering on their boy, with Sara keeping an extra close eye.

“It’s sweet how they discuss their matches with each other, and when Sara gives Alex advice, he pretends to pay attention to make her happy,” Esther says. “Even if he plays at 3am our time, she’ll refuse to go to bed. She’s convinced he’ll lose if she’s not watching.”

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