Over the past two decades, thousands of tennis tots have grown up worshipping Rafael Nadal. But few have experienced the situation that Jack Draper can look forward to on Monday at the Australian Open: facing his idol across the net in the first round of a slam.
Draper – the fast-rising 21-year-old from Surrey – is genuinely thrilled at the prospect of taking on the defending champion on Rod Laver Arena. What’s more, despite his 15 years of accumulated hero-worship, he genuinely believes he can win.
“When I was younger,” said Draper on Saturday, “I had the sleeveless top, the bandana on the head, all the latest grand-slam clothes [that Nadal would wear]. I watched him play Murray quite a few times. There’s no denying he’s an iconic player, and what he’s done within the game is incredible.
“But I feel ready. Sometimes when you play great players, you go out and have a free hit and all this sort of stuff. I don’t want to do that. I want to go and compete hard and really play well and I want to go and win the match.”
Draper’s dramatic surge up the rankings – which carried him from No262 at the beginning of last season to No38 now – has felt reminiscent of Andy Murray’s 347-place jump in 2005. And there is another parallel in the fact that both men arrived on tour with very clear ideas of who they wanted to emulate.
For Murray, the key role model was Andre Agassi. At the age of seven, he sat up to watch the 1994 US Open final while wearing cut-off jeans, neon pink cycling shorts, and a baseball cap with a blond ponytail clipped to the back. Even his game was based on Agassi’s aggressive backhand and laser-sharp return.
Draper, meanwhile, arrived at Weybridge Tennis Centre at the age of six as that very unusual thing: a right-hander who grips the racket in their left hand. Needless to say, this is the same as Nadal, who once confessed that “I eat and play basketball with my right. I play tennis and football with my left.”
Justin Sherring, who spent a decade as Draper’s developmental coach, remembers an early Talent ID session where one of the exercises was to throw a ball. “Jack did it right-handed, and then told us that he couldn’t throw a ball with his left hand.
“We used to base a lot of our game development around Rafa,” Sherring added. “I know for sure that Jack wanted to play Rafa in a grand slam before he retired.
“The things we tried to emulate were not just the lefty style but also the technique, hunger and fighting spirit. If you look closely, they both have idiosyncratic serves and quirky forehands, but their backhands are rock-solid because they have the dominant hand near the throat of the racket. It will be interesting to see whether Rafa has done his homework, because if he trades backhand to backhand it could be a long night for him.”
Given the massive disparity between their career records – Nadal 130 tour-level finals, Draper nil – you might expect this to be a routine outing for the top seed. But Nadal is coming off the worst run of results in his career – six defeats from his last seven matches – and does not deny that he is vulnerable. “The real thing is I have been losing more than usual,” he said on Saturday. “That’s the true. I need to live with it and just fight for the victories, no?”
Also, while Draper might be facing Nadal for the first time, he can draw on the experience of his introduction to Wimbledon in 2021. What a debut this was – pitched in against Novak Djokovic, another defending champion, in Monday’s Centre Court curtain-raiser. In the circumstances, it was a magnificent effort to snatch the first set, even if Draper only won five more games thereafter.
“Back then, I was ranked about 260 in the world,” Draper said on Saturday. “I was kind of thrown into that one-off match and barely played at all that year. This time it feels a little bit different because I’ve been on the tour for six months, I’ve been building my confidence. I feel a lot more comfortable in my own body and with the tennis I play. Still, the Djokovic experience will definitely help me to deal with some of the emotions going on.”
‘Jack is made for the big stage’
Draper had found himself bubbling with nervous energy on Thursday afternoon. That was the moment when news of his first-round draw came through, while he was lying on a massage table in Adelaide after a quarter-final victory over world No20 Karen Khachanov. He went on to lose the semi-final the following day, perhaps a little distracted by what was coming up next.
But many good judges expect Draper to be in full command of himself when the umpire calls play on Monday. “I think he’ll deal with the situation well,” said Andy Murray. “He obviously got to play Novak at Wimbledon so has been in that situation before. Having trained and practised with him, I know how good he is.”
Sherring – who is in Melbourne working with British doubles star Joe Salisbury – could only concur. “A lot of people playing Rafa on the first Monday would be terrified. I think Jack will be the opposite. This is a completely free hit, and personally I think Jack is made for the big stage.
“Against Novak, he showed that he had an appetite for it. He went out there to win. Now, he knows that he belongs even more, which will help his confidence. What people will come to realise about Jack is that he’s an absolute killer on the court.”