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Rising Australian tennis star Popyrin recalls time as Dubai ball boy

James Jose/Dubai
Filed on March 16, 2021
Alexei Popyrin claimed the first ATP title of his career at the Singapore Open last month. (Supplied photo)

Popyrin served as a ball boy at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the city’s premier tennis event

As Alexei Popyrin stepped on Centre Court at the Aviation Club Tennis Centre, life indeed came a full circle for Australian.

Years ago, when he was just eight-years-old, his family had relocated to Dubai from Sydney, and Popyrin served as a ball boy at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the city’s premier tennis event.

Now, at 21, and ranked 86 in the world, Popyrin returned to where it all started and memories came flooding back for the lanky lad.

"I came out to practice on court and remembered Centre Court being much bigger than it actually is," said Popyrin.

"It's probably because I was really, really short and much smaller. It's a beautiful Centre Court and I remember just, you know, just being part of a group with the ball boys, having my friends there around. I remember having lunch and dinner at the back where the ball boys usually were. And, you know, the smells. The smell is very similar and they bring the pictures back of me being a ball kid," he fondly remembered.

"Just before the tournament started, I was hitting with Jim Courier on Centre Court and then I had a picture with Ivo Karlovic. I was up to his waist at the time! It was definitely, you know, I looked up to a lot of the players. I watched them on TV and you definitely are starstruck when you're that young. Now I've become accustomed to it,” admitted Popyrin, who counted Argentine Juan Carlod Del Potro and Chilean Fernando Gonzalez as his favourites, back then.

Popyrin, who claimed the first ATP title of his career at the Singapore Open last month, also recalled his early days in Dubai where he laid the foundation for his tennis career.

"I remember going to school, actually physically going to school. That was the last time actually I physically went into a classroom. At 11 years old, I started doing online school and I finished school online. That's one fond memory that I have,” said Popyrin.

“And another one was playing the local tournaments around Fujairah, around Sharjah, in Dubai, and going to practice after school. I think every kid after school would change in the car, have his food in the car and then go to practice. I remember that and finishing practice really late, like 9:00 pm,” he added.

His family may have shifted base again due to his father’s commitments, but Popyrin still calls Dubai his home.

"Now, I don't really miss anything about Dubai because I spend a lot of time here. I'm a resident here and I basically spend, you know, four to five months, six months out of the year in Dubai and it's where I met my girlfriend. We went to school together actually back in 2008 and then we caught up together at Wimbledon in 2019. But you know, we've known each other since 2008, so Dubai holds a special place in my heart,” said Popyrin, who had defeated Marin Cilic, the former world No.3 and former US Open champion, in the semifinals of the Singapore tournament last month.

But Popyrin’s tournament ended early in Dubai with the wildcard going down to Russian eighth seed Karen Khachanov in the second round on Tuesday, after having beaten Austrian Dennis Novak in the opening round.

Roger Federer too began as a ball boy before going on to scale great heights and Popyrin is dreaming of achieving at least a small fraction of what the Swiss legend has accomplished.

"I didn't really know he was a ball kid before, but it's good footsteps to follow. If I can have half the career he's had then I'll be happy with it,’ signed off Popyrin.

james@khaleejtimes.com





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