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Demon’s dark side exposes painful truth

Bernard Tomic and Lleyton Hewitt have unleashed on one another in a series of press conferences.

Alex de Minaur isn’t Australia’s saviour.Source:AAP

For all the fanfare celebrating Australia’s 15-year record for players through to the third round at the Aussie Open, the sad fact remains — Australian tennis may still needs its brats more than they need us.

In a tumultuous week of damaging headlines for Australian tennis, top male and female stars Alex de Minaur and Ash Barty have done everything they can to settle the rocking ship.

Coupled with the delightful runs of Alex Bolt, Kim Birrell and Alexei Popyrin through to the round of 32, they came dangerously close to deceiving some tennis commentators that all is well in Australian tennis.

It is not.

Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt’s bold campaign to usher in performance and behavioural standards — while the right move — has fractured the Aussie Davis Cup team.

Divided. Disgruntled. Bending. Breaking.

This is just the beginning.

Thanasi Kokkinakis’s reportedly sulking attitude at his selection snub from two years ago, Nick Kyrgios’s Instagram pot shots and the alarming lack of support from Aussie players for the Hewitt administration this week shows at least one section of Aussie players is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming to meet the two-time grand slam champion’s demands.

Hewitt’s unflinching standards have so far been matched by the stubborn refusal from some players, including Kyrgios, to fall into line. They are simply not used to being told what to do.

They are professionals who have been on the ATP Tour long enough to think they know what to do. Every intrusion from Hewitt is seen, in their eyes, as disrespectful or overstepping his brief.

Lleyton Hewitt has a tough battle on his hands.

Lleyton Hewitt has a tough battle on his hands.Source:News Corp Australia

DAVIS CUP TAKES A DIVE

It does not help Hewitt’s cause that the significance on national representation in professional tennis is about to decline. The scrapping of the traditional Davis Cup structure in favour of a season-ending, 18-team tournament at a neutral location means representing Australia will boil down to a one-week qualifying tie and a one-week Davis Cup event annually — as well as possible Olympic competition every four years.

But for the 50 other weeks on the calendar, tennis players are sole-traders, looking out for No. 1.

It’s what makes them feel invincible when it comes to disciplinary action from Tennis Australia. For 98 per cent of the year, they don’t need anything from Tennis Australia — if their rankings are solid enough to squeeze them into the main draw of grand slam events.

It’s why Kyrgios has escaped without sanction for his potshot at Hewitt this week for watching de Minaur’s match while two Aussie teammates were in singles action at the same time.

It’s why Kyrgios’s press conference at the Open, in which he said there was “not really” a rift between him and Hewitt, came and went without a response from Tennis Australia.

Tennis Australia is simply painfully aware it still needs Kyrgios. The rapid rise of de Minaur, the promise of Popyrin and the fairytale run of Bolt doesn’t change that.

Kyrgios remains too talented, and Australia’s talent stocks too thin, for tennis officials to ever think they don’t need the big-serving cardiac kid from Canberra.

TOP DOGS NOT SCARED OF AUSSIE DEMON

De Minaur may be everything valued and respected by Australian tennis, but Rafael Nadal on Friday night brutally exposed why the 19-year-old is not the saviour so many Aussie tennis fans are desperate for him to be.

A second 6-1 6-2 6-4 clubbing at the hands of the No. 2 seed shows de Minaur still has terminal issues, just like Kyrgios.

De Minaur’s heart and hunger are beyond question, but tennis still requires more than maniacal desperation.

His game is simply nowhere near good enough to match it with the best players in the world.

A remarkable 2018 season saw de Minaur climb from No. 208 in the world 12 months ago to a career-high ranking of No. 29 on the planet. That doesn’t mean the teenager is capable of challenging the big boys.

His straight sets loss to Nadal takes his career record against top 10 ranked opponents to 0-10. He’s still yet to defeat anyone ranked in the top 20 either.

For all his speed and heart, he has simply been outclassed against the best in the world to this point. And he is not the only one.

Alex de Minaur burns rubber but that’s not enough at the elite level.

Alex de Minaur burns rubber but that’s not enough at the elite level.Source:AAP

THE NUMBERS ARE DAMNING
A quick breakdown of the Aussie men’s players in the singles draw shows just how irreplaceable Kyrgios is in Australia’s search for its next male grand slam champion. Despite his rankings slide, he is still the man most likely.

For all the developments and steps forward Australian players have taken at Melbourne Park this week, the statistical breakdown below shows just how desperate Australian tennis remains for Kyrgios to get his act together.

The combined record of the 12 Aussie men in the Australian Open main singles draw against top 10 opponents is scary reading.

Thanasi Kokkinakis 22, ranking 144: (2-4)

Alex Bolt 26, ranking 155: (0-0)

Nick Kyrgios 23, ranking 52: (15-28)

Alexei Popyrin 19, ranking 149: (1-1)

Bernard Tomic 26, ranking 88: (8-38)

John Millman 29, ranking 37: (1-11)

Jordan Thompson 24, ranking 72: (1-4)

Jason Kubler 25, ranking 130: (0-0)

Marc Polmans 21, ranking 169: (0-0)

Alex de Minaur, 19. Ranking 29: (0-10)

Matt Ebden 31, ranking 48: (3-10)

James Duckworth 26, ranking 237: (0-8)

That’s a combined record against top 10 players of 31-115 and Kyrgios and Tomic are responsible for 74 per cent of the wins.

Popyrin — who unlike all the other players currently on Hewitt’s good side actually appears to have the weapons to challenge those at the top — may be the great white hope.

But even his performance was tempered by the fact he couldn’t get past a player in Lucas Pouille who had never won a match at the Austrlaian Open before this year.

Tennis Australia simply can’t afford to go all in on de Minaur at the expense of Kyrgios just yet.

LLEYTON LOOK-A-LIKE LACKS LEVERAGE

Aussie legends Todd Woodbridge and Pat Cash both highlighted De Minaur’s Achilles heel on Saturday.

“Alex, he is going to need to beef-up his game,” Woodbridge said in commentary for Channel 9.

“He wasn’t able to win any quick points against Nadal. When they feel like they have time and can be patient, it’s tough.”

Cash pointed out the similarities between Hewitt and de Minaur should actually concern Aussie tennis fans.

“Ironically, there are good things to see there, but also I see some of the things that held Lleyton back against the big hitters,” Cash told Macquarie Sports Radio of de Minaur’s loss to Nadal.

“When he came up against some of the big boys, occasionally he toughed it out, but the big hitters got the best of him and Alex is a little bit like that. The backhand is a decent backhand, but it’s not huge. The serve is decent, but he needs to find some big weapons.

“Speed and his competitiveness are great attributes. But in time he is absolutely going to need to get more power on that backhand. Players can just sit on that all day and as we saw last night Rafa just worked it to pieces. He’s young, he’s not going to be a big strong guy. He’s going to have to find other ways to get that power.”

Until he does, Kyrgios remains the man. And until he does, Tennis Australia will continue to have almost zero leverage on Kyrgios in their ongoing power struggle.

MAKE OR BREAK TIME

Hewitt has a tough road ahead.

Hewitt has a tough road ahead.Source:News Corp Australia

Will Kyrgios come along for the ride?

Will Kyrgios come along for the ride?Source:Getty Images

It is hard to pull rank on your meal ticket. Hewitt has forced the issue. It will either be the making of Kyrgios or the breaking of Australian tennis.

“The biggest thing that (Aussie tennis legend Tony Roche) Rochey and I have moving forward with the Davis Cup team is we feel like we have a responsibility to set a cultural standard. Right now Nick is not meeting those either,” Hewitt said in his press conference.

“The things that we feel like we have to push and all we ask for is commit to the sport, go out there and give 100 per cent every time you step on the court.”

Hewitt said Kyrgios has delivered several red flags this Australian summer. “Go out there and be a great role model the whole time. I’m happy to help anyone who’s willing to meet me halfway,” he said.

“I think you have to enjoy going out there and playing. I think Nick, with what he said in Brisbane, not actually wanting to be there really at the tournament, I think that hurts one of our Australian events. So he’s got some work to do I think to get up to those standards.

“All I want guys to do is to commit to the sport and work hard, want to play for Australia. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Hewitt is going all in implementing his behavioural standards and he is gambling every chip Tennis Australia has on his shake-up.

Kyrgios is still just as likely to turn his back on the Davis Cup skipper as he is to turn his career around.

Either way, it’s too late now. Hewitt has bought his ticket. Now Australian tennis takes its ride. Buckle up. Bumpy road ahead.

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