It was Friday afternoon at Melbourne Park. A new Grand Slam season means new belief and new opportunities, and the grounds were beginning to come to life as the 2020 Australian Open drew nearer.
As players descended on Melbourne in preparation for the first major of the new decade, there was still work to be done for those battling in qualifying. For those rising the FedEx ATP Rankings on the Challenger circuit, a berth in a Grand Slam main draw is a significant prize.
In the fading sunlight of Court 8, that dream became a reality for Max Purcell. Competing in his seventh Grand Slam qualifying draw, the 21-year-old Aussie tasted victory in front of the home faithful. An emphatic roar came from Purcell, as he raised his arms in triumph and screamed towards his supporters in the crowd. A straight-set victory over Jozef Kovalik completed a dream run to the main draw.
Just three days later, the Sydney native was back in Melbourne Park, but this time on Court 7. And this time he was battling reigning Next Gen ATP Finals champion Jannik Sinner in his Grand Slam debut. Purcell would eventually fall in a hard-fought clash after two hours and 19 minutes, having struck 26 winners. But regardless of the result, this is the moment the Aussie has worked for throughout his young career. Both Purcell and Sinner are perfect examples of players who have capitalised on their time on the ATP Challenger Tour. While Sinner has rapidly risen the FedEx ATP Rankings, soaring into the spotlight in just one season, Purcell is on a different path. Not all roads to the Top 100 are created equal.
As his Italian counterpart was tearing up the Challenger circuit in singles in 2019, Purcell was doing the same in doubles. Teaming with countryman Luke Saville, they lifted a total of seven trophies and secured a tour-leading 41 match wins together. Close friends off the court and strong teammates between the lines, the Aussie duo produced a magical run through the season, dominating from start to finish. They also appeared in their first ATP Tour events, earning their way into Wimbledon, as well as the 250-level stops in Newport and Los Cabos.
It is a unique dynamic for two players who have built their careers on their singles court. And while they continue to prioritise singles over doubles, the Aussies admit that their success together has helped develop their games in both disciplines. From mastering their net play and timing moving forward to honing their overall court instincts. Few singles players have made such great strides in doubles on the ATP Challenger Tour, but they are succeeding in doing just that. It’s a different path and one they hope will pay dividends in the long run.
Both Purcell and Saville first established themselves on the scene in the mid-2010s, but struggled to find consistent success as the years went on. The 25-year-old Saville is a former junior No. 1, winning the boys titles at Wimbledon in 2011 and the 2012 Australian Open. Two years later, he kicked off his pro career with an upset of Dominic Thiem at Wimbledon, rising to a career-high of No. 152 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. Purcell, meanwhile, launched his Challenger career in 2016 with an immediate splash – lifting his lone singles trophy in Gimcheon, South Korea. It came in just his third main draw appearance on the circuit.
A few years later, the Aussies find themselves on a less conventional road to the top. Winning breeds winning and it’s no surprise that Purcell marched through qualifying in Melbourne. Also the winner of 37 singles matches at the Challenger level in 2019, and a finalist in Seoul, he is just eight spots off his career-high of No. 208 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. And Saville reached his first singles semi-final in more than two years, on home soil in Launceston.
On Wednesday, the duo advanced to the second round of the Australian Open doubles, earning their first Grand Slam victory together. They will next face eighth seeds Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau.
Purcell and Saville spoke to ATPChallengerTour.com about their strong partnership and goals for 2020…
Max, Luke, it’s been an amazing run for you guys. How do you explain your success together?
Purcell: Since the beginning, we clicked really well. We both have a passion for doubles and it really helps our singles as well. We’re both aggressive singles players and like to get forward to the net. Anything to get our singles games better as well, we’re all for it. We just enjoy it the most.
Saville: We’re firstly good mates. We’re two Australians and he’s four years younger than me. It’s a funny dynamic and I’m sort of a mentor and older figure for him a little bit. He’s had a really good run in singles and we bounce ideas off each other all the time. We’re singles players first and that lets us play more relaxed on the doubles side.
How did you first decide to team up and coordinate your schedules?
Saville: To start, we won a Challenger – a big 125 event – in Bangalore at the end of 2018. We aligned our schedules a bit and play mostly in Asia. We like the faster hard courts, so we travel around and play whenever we can together. When we cracked the Top 100 and got to No. 80, we decided to play ATP Tour events together but only when there was a good opportunity. We played Wimbledon, Newport and Los Cabos. We got into Wimbledon as an alternate, ending up just slipping in there, which was awesome.
No team won more matches and titles last year than you two. Talk about the chemistry you have developed on the court. It doesn’t happen often for two singles players.
Purcell: We’re just lucky that we like playing similar schedules, so we can partner together the majority of the weeks. There were only four or five tournaments last year where we weren’t together. So many people mix up who they play with. When it gets down to those tough moments, they don’t know what their partners are doing and have that trust. We know each other so well and it feels easy. Nothing really changes when we’re on the court and we don’t have to worry about who is serving or returning well. We just find ways around it. He’s just a great guy and a great friend.
Did you surprise yourself with the success you’ve had together?
Saville: Yeah, for sure. This time last year, if someone said that we’re going to win eight Challengers, that’s pretty ridiculous. Our game style is pretty tough at the Challenger level. We need to keep improving to get better at the next level, but we still have some work to do with our game.
Obviously both of you are singles players first, but how has your run together given you confidence as a whole?
Purcell: I was always looking to come forward in singles and play at the net, but when it came down to those tough moments I wouldn’t trust it. I’d stay back. With all the tough volleys you pull out in doubles, it makes it easy to think about finishing at the net, rather than hoping players miss. That’s a huge part of tennis and you just have to get forward. So many players are walls at the back, so that’s the way tennis is going these days.
Saville: When I’m done with singles, I feel like there could be a path in doubles. I’d have a few regrets if I decided to take the full-time doubles route now. I’m playing pretty good tennis and have some momentum going. We don’t want to go fully doubles yet, but we do it where we can. There’s definitely some unfinished business on the singles court. We’re focusing on singles, but doubles is a big priority. It’s good to obviously get in Slams and financially helps a lot.
How has the doubles helped improve your singles game, particularly your net play?
Purcell: I have more confidence now. We’re doing more than an hour warmups before doubles matches, just so we can get singles and doubles practice in. We need to get enough volley work in. We’re looking to get better and better. We want to test ourselves. It would be nice to focus more on doubles because we can get into some bigger tournaments now, but we have to hold back because our singles rankings won’t get us in there. We just have to keep moving along in Challengers and hopefully our singles will get us in those bigger events.
Saville: My volleys and knowing where to cover has improved a lot. The confidence of winning matches and being in tournaments on Saturdays and Sundays – in semis and finals – is priceless as well. You have to play with extra pressure and that’s transferred a bit into my singles. Where to serve and return has also transferred over and it all ties together. There are a bunch of guys who have had success mixing singles and doubles. Herbert is one of them. With my singles game style, I like to move forward and play a front-court game. I think that ties in well with doubles. I think I can have a career being good in both.
Luke, you’re only 25 but have been on tour for many years now. You’ve experienced a lot already in your career. What would you say is the toughest part of competing at this level and rising up the rankings?
Saville: It’s been a long time without breaking through, ever since juniors. I’ve been asked a lot and it’s hard to point to where it went wrong for me. I was making a bit of a run a few years ago, getting to No. 150, but right now I have belief in myself again and I’m playing some pretty good tennis. If I lost hope by now, I’d probably have started playing full-time doubles already. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m still enjoying it. I love traveling and doing what I love. Going to different places and seeing what they have to offer is nice. And the competition of playing matches, getting better and improving the ranking is what I love. Seeing improvements in my game is what drives me. Proving to myself that I can get to the next level keeps me believing.
If you could point to one moment in 2019, what would you say was the highlight of your season?
Saville: Playing Wimbledon is definitely an achievement and we’re pretty proud of it. We snuck in as second alternates but we feel like we earned it. We were playing for six or seven months, but to get into a Slam was really good for us. We battled our way through the Challengers and didn’t need a wild card. Every Aussie Open for the past few years I’ve relied on wild cards, so that was special. Just getting into Wimbledon with what we’ve achieved leading up. There was also a final in Anning, China, where we were down a set and a break and they served for the match. We came back and won that somehow. That was definitely pleasing. We had a few moments like that throughout the year.
What are your goals for 2020? In both singles and doubles.
Purcell: Top 100 in singles in 2020 would be a big goal. I’m heading in the right direction, but I don’t like to put that pressure on myself. If Luke and I can hang around Top 50 in doubles, that would be great as well, because it can put us in any tournament we want.
Saville: I want to get back into Grand Slam qualies in singles. I want to get more singles weeks in, where I’m going far. But I can definitely use what we’ve achieved in doubles as a springboard for singles going forward. If you can get more comfortable at the next level, even in doubles, it’s all positives.