There is one particular Spanish opponent whose name haunts Alexei Popyrin. And, despite a straight sets loss to the greatest clay courter of them all in the Australian’s final match before opening his 2021 Roland Garros campaign against the same imposing foe, it is not Rafael Nadal.
Alvaro Regalado Pedrol. Heard of him? No, of course you haven't.
Yet a 22-year-old believed to be at college in the US, one whose sole ITF Futures main draw was in Egypt in 2016, became an unwitting yet key player in an important early chapter of the Popyrin story that becomes more interesting as it unfolds.
It was 2009, in Croatia, at the 14th Smirkva Bowl for 10-and-unders. Dubai-based Popyrin and his brother Anthony had made their debut - and Australia’s - at the prestigious event on unfamiliar clay the previous year, when young Alexei was thrilled to reach the quarters in a 64-strong draw.
What that exciting effort also meant was that when the rangy right-hander returned as a top-age participant 12 months later, expectations were high. Not least his own.
“I played this Spanish kid that no-one’s ever heard of - Alvaro Regalado Pedrol,’’ Popyrin told The First Serve, laughing as the name rolls off his tri-lingual tongue.
“I remember his name. Still gives me nightmares. Because he kills me. Kills me that day! I think I win one game in the whole match.’’ (Author’s note: the tournament website shows that, ahem, the score was 9:0).
During the “trauma”, as his dad Alex remembers it, and the sleepless nights that followed, Regalado Pedrol continued on to dominate a field that also included current top-50 trio Alex de Minaur, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Miomir Kecmanovic.
Meanwhile, Popyrin - whose parents had become friendly with Regalado Pedrol’s Alicante-based physio and been invited to visit the club that was already de Minaur's home - was plotting revenge.
“I wanted to beat him. I wanted to go on clay and beat him,’’ Popyrin says. “So we moved to Spain, to his club where he trained. A year or a year-and-a-half later we played a practice match and I beat him 6-1, and from then it gave me confidence to be able to play on this surface.’’
Despite still being neither Popyrin’s most productive nor preferred, European dirt would host his first big breakthrough eight years later. Just months after joining the Mouratoglou Academy, Popyrin farewelled junior competition via a 22-match winning streak by defeating another Spaniard, Nicolas Kuhn, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the 2017 Roland Garros boys’ final.
“If you would have told me that I would have won French Open that year, I would have said ‘you’re crazy’, because I remember I lost the second round of Aussie Open three and love and I was in qualifying of Futures, and I really wasn’t feeling too good about my game.’’
Things changed quickly. After a solid training block at Mouratoglou’s, and having drawn confidence from strong lead-in results, Popyrin arrived in Paris with a top-five junior ranking, and a psychological edge he used to good effect to complement that already-powerful game.
“I had a bigger serve, bigger forehand, and I could blow most of them off the court,’’ he says. “Right now on the pros I can’t really do that, because they’re all physically fit, but on the juniors I could still get away with that.’’
Fast forward four years, and Popyrin - one of ten Australians in the respective singles draws - enters his first round against 13-time champion Nadal with a 1-2 career record at the clay court major.
His five-tournament build-up in Europe was mixed, highlighted by an outstanding defeat of Italian world No.18 Jannik Sinner in Madrid before that 6-3, 6-3 loss to the Majorcan, as the 21-year-old qualified twice and compiled a 4-5 record at main draw level.
It was in contrast to a 10-5 run on hard courts that included his maiden ATP title in Singapore and a career-best defeat of David Goffin at the Australian Open after saving four match points.
“I think up until this year I had a pretty good relationship with clay, but then the results this year weren’t great for me and I really started getting annoyed with my balls, with me not being able to hit a lot of winners,’’ Popyrin says.
“I felt so good on a hardcourt and I thought I could implement my hard court game into this clay court and it didn’t work. You play some guys from South America who play on clay all the time, and they keep getting the ball back and you keep having to hit, hit, hit, hit.
“But I’ve had a lot of tight matches on clay, a lot of matches that could go either way, and that just shows that I’m able to have chances in all of the matches. It’s just being able to get those important points and capitalise on them, which I hadn’t been able to do.
"But at the big tournament, the French Open, hopefully I’ll be able to implement those lessons that I’ve learnt.’’
Popyrin arrived last Tuesday after a weekend in London to celebrate his girlfriend Amy Pederick’s birthday, and, while aware of the need to minimise the errors that come with playing aggressively, is satisfied with the marked improvement in his backhand compared with three years ago.
“I’ve put a lot of work into my backhand; I think it’s one of my more solid shots. That’s the area that everybody goes to and I think it’s the area that can hinder me sometimes, but I’m feeling really confident on my backhand side right now. And I’m feeling equally as confident on my forehand side, so that says a lot for my backhand.’’
Speaking pre-draw, with the caveat that finding himself in the early path of someone like Nadal or world No.1 Novak Djokovic would make it "very unlikely", Popyrin’s ambition was to reach the second week at a major for the first time, and to prove to himself that he is able to play well on the surface he first experienced in the Smirkva Bowl a dozen years ago.
Back before, he, too, had ever heard of the not-so-famous non-Rafa Spaniard Alvaro Regalado Pedrol.
“Definitely I think I can do some good things on clay court,'' says the world No.62. "I think I need to build up the experience a little bit more, especially playing on the pro circuit. But I believe in myself, I definitely do.’’
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