The loss of Nick Kyrgios to injury robbed the Australian Open of one of its biggest drawcards but it has been a blessing in disguise for Alex De Minaur as fans rally around the home favourite.
The Australian number two soaked up the cheers of a raucous Rod Laver Arena crowd on Saturday as he booked his place in the last 16 for the second year in a row with an emphatic 7-6(0) 6-2 6-1 win over Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi.
Gritty and hard-running, but not blessed with killer weapons, the 23-year-old could not be more different than flashy Netflix star Kyrgios, who is renowned for his temper as much as his tennis.
But De Minaur has filled the breach superbly at a tournament where Australians are now in short supply.
“I’m very happy, I can’t lie,” De Minaur told the centre court crowd.
“Honestly, as a kid this is what you train for - to be playing on this court in front of you guys.
“Every time I get out here I’ve got to pinch myself.”
Kyrgios is renowned for pumping up the fans - and then berating them when they get unruly - but De Minaur’s tennis was all he needed to send the crowd wild.
Inflatable kangaroos bobbed in the Rod Laver Arena terraces and Mexican waves surged around the stadium in the third set as De Minaur put the foot down against Bonzi.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but to see a packed Rod Laver Arena was pretty special,” he said.
“There’s no secret that I love playing here in my back yard. I think the Aussie crowd is amazing.
“The difference is that the opponents not only have to play against me, they have to play against the whole crowd.”
De Minaur will next face the winner of nine-times champion Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov, who play in the evening session.
Countryman and fellow 23-year-old Alexei Popyrin, who stunned eighth seed Taylor Fritz in the second round, will try to join De Minaur in the last 16 when he plays American Ben Shelton.
“I hope everyone that’s on this court is going to go and support Alexei Popyrin,” De Minaur said in a rallying cry to the Laver crowd.
“That’s what we do, we Aussies, we stick together ... Let’s get Pop over the line today.” (