When the Australian Open draw was made, several matches stood out. Matteo Berrettini is playing Andy Murray in the first round and Andrey Rublev is facing Dominic Thiem.
But perhaps the biggest opportunity belongs to Jack Draper, the 21-year-old Briton who will try to upset top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal.
“It’ll be amazing to play on court with him, he’s a great champion,” Draper said. “[There are] a lot of emotions obviously when I think of playing him.”
Nadal is still very much the present, but it is clear Draper is part of the future. Already with two Top 10 wins on his resume and an appearance at the 2022 Next Gen ATP Finals, the lefty is on the rise. The World No. 40 is not allowing his early success to get to his mind, though.
“Tennis is such a small bubble and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the winning and losing and the pressures and the challenges on a daily basis. It’s not easy sometimes,” Draper said. “I’m learning how to enjoy it a little bit more, and I think when mentally I start to learn how to enjoy the challenges, that’s when it will become really fulfilling for me.
“I’ve only been on Tour for six months. I’m still learning all the time, every day, about things, and how I can be better and more consistent at this level, mentally and physically, tennis-wise.”
What has allowed Draper to keep that perspective? The Briton believes it has to do with humbling injuries he has dealt with early in his career, including an ankle injury he suffered in 2021.
“I think being injured a lot when I was younger, I think that gives you a lot of perspective on things. I spent a lot of time just at home, sitting there, wanting to be on court and it was always difficult knowing that I could progress when I wasn’t, I was just injured,” Draper said. “So I think that was one, just getting those experiences at a younger age.”
In 2020, Covid-19 affected all players on the Tour, suspending six months of play. In 2021, Draper demonstrated signs of his potential with two wins at Queen’s Club and a good showing at Wimbledon, where he won a set against Novak Djokovic. But the injury bug derailed his progress.
“There was a consistent theme of injuries, but I think the one that really got to me was after I played Novak at Wimbledon two years ago,” Draper said. “I was on a bit of a high, I’d just played Queen’s and done well there, and I was on the clay, and I ruptured ligaments in my ankle, so I had to spend time off the court, and I think that was one I was like, ‘Right, I need to just not focus about rankings or anything, I just need to focus on trying to stay injury-free, keeping healthy and being about the process’, which is where I’m at now and I think that’s why last year I had the season I had.”
What has helped keep Draper centered is the team around him, including coach James Trotman and his brother, former college tennis player Ben Draper. According to Trotman, his charge is “competitive to the core”, which made those difficult moments even tougher.
“Through the Covid year and through injuries and various things Jack hadn’t competed much. There was a pedigree in there. He made the final of junior Wimbledon,” Trotman said. “But if you’re injured and you’re not able to compete and you’re not able to play, it makes it difficult to actually see where your level’s going to be.”
That is what made 2022 such an important year for Draper. The lefty began the season outside the Top 250 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, but cracked the Top 50 by September.
“Sometimes I forget that last year even happened, because it seems like I had a good year and then you’ve got to do it all over again, you’ve got to go again, and that’s a real challenge in itself,” Draper said. “I’ve only been on Tour for six months, I’m still learning at this level, I’m still trying to improve, playing against guys who maybe [can] take me out on their day, like [Karen] Khachanov last week. All these lessons and experiences are great for me to become the player and the person that I want to become.”
As much attention as Draper is getting, he is still a 21-year-old with a normal life off the court. He enjoys spending time with his friends while home and likes card games.
“Usually I lose, I’ve got a good habit of losing, I think. If that’s the other skill I’ve got, it’s being terrible at cards,” he admitted.
Draper even plays pranks on those close to him. If someone on the Briton’s team gets in the elevator with him, odds are he will try to send them to the wrong floor.
“I have a lot of good friends. I have friends from school, when I was seven years old, who I keep in touch with at home, and also, I have friends in tennis. It’s a bit different, because maybe the friends outside of tennis don’t know anything about it, they don’t care, whatever,” Draper said.
“Then I’ve got friends obviously inside tennis who are going through the same journey as I am, so they understand the path of a tennis player and we can relate on that basis as well. So, I’ve got good mates.”
As many eyes are on him in the tennis world, a weekly result does not mean as much to his friends back home.
“They don’t care at all. They don’t know the scoreline. They’ve come to Wimbledon a couple of times, and they don’t know what’s going on,” Draper said. “They’ve just seen me playing players they’ve seen all the time on the news and the TV, and they think, ‘Wow, that’s so cool’, but they’re just at [university] living normally. So that is, I think, a good balance to have.”
It is safe to say those friends will be tuning in to Draper’s first-round match at Melbourne Park against Nadal, who said of the 21-year-old “I know he’s playing well. He has a lot of positive things, and probably a great career in front.”
Draper will hope to fast-track that inside Rod Laver Arena.
“Whatever happens, it’ll be a special occasion for me, still very young in my career, so it’s great to have these sort of experiences and exposure to playing someone like Rafa on a big court like that,” Draper said. “But I want to play really well and I want to compete hard and do the best I can.”