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The Moment That Changed Everything For Jiri Lehecka

  • Posted: Jan 21, 2023

The Moment That Changed Everything For Jiri Lehecka

Czech reflects on his rapid rise

Jiri Lehecka made his main draw debut at all four Grand Slams in 2022, his breakthrough season. But the Czech was unable to make his mark at the majors, falling short in the first round on each occasion.

What would the 21-year-old have said if told before the start of the season he would reach the fourth round at the Australian Open?

“I wouldn’t believe you,” Lehecka told with a smile. “But deep in my mind, I always knew that results like this are possible for me.”

The World No. 71 has played mature beyond his years at Melbourne Park, defeating two ATP Masters 1000 champions — Borna Coric and Cameron Norrie — en route to the Round of 16. And the Czech shows no signs of slowing down.

“I felt like my game was there, but that I just needed to focus on some small details that can get me through these tough matches,” Lehecka said. “That’s something that I think we worked hard on a lot and focussed on every day and every practice. Now for me, the most important thing is just to stay focussed on the right things.”

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If his efforts thus far at the year’s first major are a good indicator, Lehecka will be a consistent threat at the world’s biggest tournaments for years to come. Not bad for someone who grew up playing tennis for fun.

“Back in the days when I was playing tennis back home, it was only about enjoyment and I never had big ambitions to become a pro,” Lehecka said. “For me it has always been like a hobby and to do some sports that I liked.”

The Czech has athletic genes. His father, Jiri, was a professional swimmer and his mother, Romana, was a professional track-and-field athlete. Lehecka believes he inherited empathy from his mother and his work ethic from his father, who preaches that the best way to earn anything is hard work.

When Lehecka was three, he watched as his grandmother taught his older sister, Veronika, the sport. He wanted to give it a shot. But tennis did not become more serious for Lehecka until he moved to Prostejov aged 15 and began representing the Czech Republic in various events.

“I started to feel more like I would love to do that professionally and I really liked how all these players looked when they are playing on the big stages,” Lehecka said. “That was probably the moment when I took a looked at myself and said, ‘Yeah, I really want to be a professional tennis player and I really want to live a life like that.’”

Moving to Prostejov to attend a sports school was scary at the same time. Lehecka went to his new home without his parents.

“It wasn’t easy for sure but luckily for me, I had great friends over there that I still keep in touch with,” Lehecka said. “They helped me go through those difficult times when it was my first time without my family or anybody I knew to focus more on the tennis and focus on what I should do there.”

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It was in Prostejov where coach Michal Navratil met Lehecka for the first time.

“What I was excited [about] was he was a very nice guy, always said hello to everyone. He was a kind guy,” Lehecka said. “Then of course when I saw him on the court he was very powerful. The strength from the beginning was in him.”

Lehecka reached No. 10 in the world as a junior, but his biggest splash to date came last February in Rotterdam. As a qualifier, he advanced to the semi-finals with wins over Denis Shapovalov and Lorenzo Musetti along the way before pushing Stefanos Tsitsipas to three sets. He was not intimidated by the big stage of the ATP 500.

That comfort under the spotlight became even clearer at the Next Gen ATP Finals in November. The Czech advanced to the championship match in Milan.

“When I ended the journey in the final and I just took some time off and took some time to get back on the ground and some time looking back at the Next Gen, I think that every match over there, every practice session, and all the media stuff around, everything helped me in a certain way,” Lehecka said. “These are the experiences that helped me to be more prepared for what came over here.”

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Navratil believes that “something changed” in Milan for his charge.

“He started to believe more in himself,” Navratil said. “He had a couple of chances also during the year and he learned from it and he grew up and he got to this point and now he enjoys it and he believes he can beat anyone and I am so happy for it.”

Former WTA World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova has been following Lehecka’s progress through the tournament and was impressed with his five-set win against Cameron Norrie in the third round.

“He has a really good coach, who used to be around with Jiri Vesely. So I think that’s also helped him to bring some experience, but I think the game is quite strong,” Pliskova said. “I actually watched yesterday quite a lot of the match with Norrie. I think he’s very aggressive, especially on these fast courts I think it can pay off and of course he’s still like a newcomer for some of the players, so they don’t know him that much and I think he can do well.”

While Lehecka hopes to continue further in the tournament — he plays Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round — and climb the sport’s ladder in the years to come, he wants the fans who begin to watch him to know about more than just his tennis.

“I just want them to know that I’m an honest person,” Lehecka said. “I really like people who are working hard and they are not trying to find any excuses.”

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Inside Yoshihito Nishioka's Renaissance

  • Posted: Jan 21, 2023

Inside Yoshihito Nishioka’s Renaissance

Japanese lefty surging at the Australian Open

One year ago Yoshihito Nishioka lost in the first round of the Australian Open. It was his lowest low.

The Japanese lefty was struggling to find motivation and fell to No. 123 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Nishioka was prepared to call it a career.

“Last year was like a nightmare,” Nishioka told “My ranking dropped [to] around 120 or something, but then I got a feeling like ‘Oh, I cannot come back anymore [to the] Top 50.’ I said in two years I will retire if I cannot make it. Then the Japanese fans were very surprised with that. It was real, I was thinking like that.”

Nishioka told himself he would focus for two years to try to make the most of his tennis.

“If it doesn’t work, if [I’m not] successful, then I will quit,” Nishioka recalled himself thinking. “After a couple months, I was doing very well and then I got the confidence. Then I got a new coach and he supported me a lot, others [on the] team also [were] very supportive. Now, I’m finally around Top 30.”

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One year after contemplating retirement at the Australian Open, Nishioka made personal history Friday. The 27-year-old advanced to the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the first time and climbed to No. 32 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings.

“Last year I was here, I almost was like, ‘I’m done’,” Nishioka said. “I’m very surprised I’m feeling very, very opposite in just a year.”

So what has changed in a year? Nishioka’s attitude, for one. The Japanese star admitted that in the past he would let his emotions get to him during matches.

“I was thinking okay, what’s the best way? Don’t show emotions?” Nishioka said. “I tried it, but for me, I don’t feel great.”

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The lefty decided to harness his emotions to power his game.

“I don’t know why, but I played very well. I have a feeling when I have a little bit of a mentality of [using my emotions], I feel very focussed on the match and that’s coming because I want to win,” Nishioka said. “So now I found if I want to win, I need to [get emotional]. But I need to control for sure. Like Novak or like Andy Murray. He’s saying something to the coaches, sounds a little bit upset every point but he’s very on point. Like even Djokovic.

“When you can control the mentality like that, I think it’s very good for me as well. But a couple years ago I couldn’t control [it]. When I was getting upset, I was just upset and I was going crazy. But now I can control how to [get] upset and how to focus on how to beat someone. That’s a big difference I think.”

The turning point came last August in Washington, where Nishioka battled through a difficult draw — Jenson Brooksby, Alex de Minaur, Karen Khachanov, Daniel Evans and Andrey Rublev — to reach the biggest final of his career. The Japanese player has been on the rise since. Later in the year, he began working with a new coach, Christian Zahalka.

“I wasn’t thinking I could be like this before I made the final there. After that, I got a new coach and won the Seoul [ATP] 250, which jumped my ranking up as well,” Nishioka said. “We are still working together and I’m still having good results, in Adelaide and here as well, which is very helpful.”

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He added: “I’m very happy for this and I’m really happy to decide that I’m working with him. I believe I can [improve] my ranking and I believe I can make better results for other tournaments as well, so I have great confidence.”

The best players in the world are often known for their strongest shots, whether a booming serve, stunning forehand or rock-solid backhand. The 5’7” Nishioka is known for something else, though, according to Australian Rinky Hijikata.

“Clearly he is not the biggest guy. Neither am I. He is very, very good at finding ways to win and making guys feel uncomfortable on the court, and I think that’s one of his biggest strengths,” Hijikata said. “He is an unbelievable mover, defends really well, and just makes life really miserable for guys out there.”

Nishioka played doubles alongside countryman Ben Mclachlan on Saturday. Although they lost, Mclachlan had plenty of praise for his partner.

“He is just the man. He is playing really well,” Mclachlan said, cracking a smile. “It’s fun to watch him play. I always enjoy watching him play. I mean, the guy doesn’t miss. He is just so quick.”

As much of a turnaround Nishioka has made over the past year, it can get even better over the next week. On Sunday, the lefty will play 18th seed Karen Khachanov for a place in the quarter-finals.

“I have confidence right now. I got seeded here [for the] first time. I’m playing very well, so I’m believing I can play like great players,” said the 31st seed. “Still I’m in the Round of 16, I want to make the quarter-finals or more if I can.

“It’s going to be tough for sure, but I believe I have a chance. I think I can play, so from now I will try my best.”

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Andy Murray: 'I Can Still Do Some Damage'

  • Posted: Jan 21, 2023

Andy Murray: ‘I Can Still Do Some Damage’

Former World No. 1 says he is still capable of deep runs at the Slams

The last time Andy Murray exited the Australian Open at the hands of Roberto Bautista Agut, there was speculation that the former World No. 1 had made his final appearance at Melbourne Park. Skip ahead four years to the Scot’s four-set defeat to the Spaniard Saturday and Murray’s immediate playing future looks brighter as a 35-year-old than it did when he was 31.

Although Murray understandably showed some fatigue against RBA after coming into the match following back-to-back five sets wins – including a five-hour, 45 minute epic against Thanasi Kokkinakis that finished after 4 a.m. Friday, the five-time Australian Open finalist appears to be in good physical condition for a man who has undergone back surgery, two hip surgeries and who has played 954 tour-level matches.

“You never know exactly when the end is going to be,” said Murray, who underwent a second hip surgery after the Australian Open in 2019. “I would like to go out playing tennis like this, where I’m competing with the best players in the world in the biggest events and doing myself justice.

“There were maybe times the last year or so where I didn’t really feel like I was playing well, and I didn’t enjoy the way that I was playing. Those sacrifices and that effort that I put in allowed me to get through those matches and play at a high level that I think was entertaining for the people watching.

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“I felt good about the way that I was playing. It’s more enjoyable for me when I’m playing like that, when I’m coming into a major event and really believing that I can do some damage.”

A winner of two Wimbledon titles and the US Open in 2012, Murray said that he can make the second week of the majors.

“I can have a deeper run than the third round of a Slam, there’s no question about that,” he said. “Obviously draws can open up for you. I need to also help myself with that. If I was playing at this level last year, I probably wouldn’t be ranked 50, 60 in the world. It’s up to me to try and change that.”

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Murray, who ends the Open at No. 62 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings, recounted his recovery from the Kokkinakis match, the longest of his career. It was also the 11th time he had rallied from two sets down to win, a record among active players.

“I slept from 6 until 9 the morning I played the match with Kokkinakis, which obviously isn’t enough,” he said with understatement and a smile. “Then I had to come in here. I had about seven or eight blisters that I had to have drained and then he put this liquid in to dry it. I had to come in in the morning to give that time to settle.

“Then I went back to the hotel, slept for a few hours, and then hit for, like, 15 minutes yesterday. Yeah, just the ice baths, saw my physio.

“My feet didn’t feel great. My legs were actually okay. They weren’t too bad. But I was struggling with my lower back. That was affecting my serve. That was really the main thing that I was struggling with today.”

Murray’s next event will be the ATP 500 ABN AMRO Open in Rotterdam, beginning 13 February.

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De Minaur Leads Aussie Charge

  • Posted: Jan 21, 2023

De Minaur Leads Aussie Charge

American Paul sinks countryman Brooksby

Home favourite Alex de Minaur equalled his best result at the Australian Open Saturday when he cruised past Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi 7-6(0), 6-2, 6-1 to reach the fourth round for a second consecutive year.

After winning a tight first set, in which he twice squandered break advantages, the Australian pulled away, committing just 12 unforced errors in the second and third sets combined to seal victory after two hours and 10 minutes.

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With his fourth victory of the season, De Minaur now leads Bonzi 3-0 in their ATP Head2Head series. He will look to keep his run going when he takes on nine-time champion Novak Djokovic or 27th seed Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round.

The 23-year-old’s best result at a major came at the US Open in 2020, when he advanced to the quarter-finals.

De Minaur’s countryman Alexei Popyrin meets #NextGenATP American Ben Shelton later on Saturday. If Popyrin wins, it will be the first time since 2015 that two Australian men have reached the fourth round in Melbourne. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios achieved the feat eight years ago.

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In other action, Tommy Paul wasted little time in reaching the fourth round in Melbourne for the first time. The American overcame countryman Jenson Brooksby 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 to set up a clash against five-time finalist Andy Murray or Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.

Paul, who is up to No. 33 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings, struck 34 winners and saved all four break points he faced to seal victory after two hours and nine minutes. With his win, the 25-year-old has equalled his best Grand Slam result, having advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year.

Brooksby upset second seed Casper Ruud en route to the third round, but was unable to find the same level against Paul, who now leads the 22-year-old 2-0 in their ATP Head2Head series.

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Rublev Takes Banana From Evans, Gives Nothing In Return

  • Posted: Jan 21, 2023

Rublev Takes Banana From Evans, Gives Nothing In Return

Fifth seed seeks second quarter-final at Melbourne Park

Andrey Rublev unleashed a torrent of hard-hitting winners against Briton Daniel Evans Saturday to muscle his way into the fourth round of the Australian Open. The fifth seed clocked triple the number of winners (60-20) than his opponent en route to a dominant 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 win.

Evans, a gritty opponent who can get under the skin of even the most unflappable players, had proven a difficult challenge for the combustible Rublev in six prior meetings, which the players had evenly split.

But on Thursday Rublev mixed devastating first-strike tennis with one of his stronger mental performances as he denied Evans a path into the match. Hitting a Serve+1 forehand 90% of the time, Rublev dominated points of 0-4 shots, winning 66 to Evans’ 44.

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Not even an act of kindness from Evans could soften up the 25-year-old, who recently passed $15m in career earnings. Early in the match when Evans heard Rublev call for a banana, he tossed one to his opponent.

“I didn’t ask him for it, but I asked a ball boy. He had two so he threw one to me and I caught it. It helped with some energy,” Rublev said with a smile.

Having already moved to No. 5 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings to tie his career-high mark, Rublev will next face the winner of ninth seed Holger Rune and Frenchman Ugo Humbert as he shrugs off what had been a slow start to the year.

After two opening-round defeats to Roberto Bautista Agut and Thanasi Kokkinakis at the back-to-back Adelaide 250 tournaments in the first two weeks of the season, Rublev said that he was in need of a boost.

“At the beginning of the season I lost a bit of confidence with those losses, but now I am playing good tennis,” he said. “After the first set I was feeling really confident and I knew I could play better, faster and that he was not comfortable with that, so I tried to play even more aggressive.”

Rublev, who has never reached the semi-finals of a major, is now one win away from his seventh major quarter-final, and second in three years Down Under.

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