As Alex de Minaur was preparing for his US Open fourth round encounter against Daniil Medvedev, he cited the “Blue Wall” he is so fond of when discussing his Sydney mates.
It is a theme borrowed from the New South Wales Rugby League Team and one used to describe both the closeness of bonds with his Aussie teammates and also his own defence.
But with his last 16 match in the balance deep in the second set on Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday night, de Minaur “hit the wall” physically.
And when the “Blue Wall” cracked, it sprang leaks everywhere as the world No.13 succumbed to Medvedev 2-6 6-4 6-1 6-2 on a stifling night in New York.
The Australian had played superbly for the first hour against the 2021 US Open champion, who said later de Minaur was “actually destroying” him in the infancy of the match.
As evening fell over the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre, the duo sparred throughout an incredibly tight second set, but in the latter stages, Medvedev noticed a curious thing.
De Minaur is famed for his swiftness and also his determination. The tougher the contest, the better. Yet de Minaur started to look to shorten points. This spurred the Russian on.
“(It was a) brutal match. A brutal match because (of the) brutal conditions. So tough. So humid today. It was going to be tough for everyone who was there today,” Medvedev said.
“It's great to (outlast) someone like Alex, who for me is probably (in the) top five most physical guys on tour. I'm sure he (has) won a lot of five-setters in his life and stuff like this. “It was tough for me all of the match. I think I (have) never changed that many T-shirts and that many towels during the match.
“(But) I did think he was struggling a little bit to move. I'm like, ‘Okay. He’s struggling. I’m struggling. Let’s go.’”
Medvedev, who will play his close friend Andrey Rublev in a quarterfinal likely to be played in similarly oppressive conditions on Wednesday, was accurate in his assessment.
The world No.13 had played superbly in New York. It capped a fine summer which included runs to finals at Queens, in Los Cabos and also in the Toronto Masters.
He felt things might have been different had he managed to seize an especially tight second set. But when Medvedev asked the question, de Minaur realised he had nothing left.
“That's one hundred percent what happened and it's probably the first time in my career that kind of fitness let me down. It's not something that happens. I back myself every day of the year,” de Minaur said.
“I think ultimately what happened out there was nothing to do with tennis. It was, I think, a little bit to do with just physicality. I had a lot of matches this whole summer without a lot of time off and rest and it seemed to have caught up with me at this moment.
“I mean, I think there was no lack of confidence to beat him. I knew what I had to do to hurt him and, you know, I showed it until my legs went away.
“And then suddenly I had to try and scramble, find different ways of playing, and you can't do that against a player of the calibre of Daniil.”
A maiden triumph over Medvedev in their fifth career outing at the Paris Masters last October sparked a surge in belief that de Minaur has ridden throughout a busy 2023.
He has notched a further six victories over top 10-ranked rivals since that triumph, with Rafael Nadal, Holger Rune and Taylor Fritz joining Medvedev as his scalps.
The challenge is to do it at grand slam level. This was another incremental step forward.
Having fallen to Jannik Sinner and Novak Djokovic in straight sets at a similar stage in the last two Australian Opens, the Australian has now won a set off a champion in a major.
In a career of incremental improvement, the hard-working right-hander knows he needs to improve further to become a contender, but it is clear he is closing the gap on the best.
“I like where I'm at. I think I'm in a very positive place. And, you know, these (type of) matches will soon come my way,” he said.
There is no rest yet for the Australian, who will lead his teammates in the Davis Cup qualifiers being held in Manchester beginning on September 12.
It is a testing group featuring hosts Great Britain, France and Switzerland and de Minaur is mindful of the challenge ahead for last year’s runners-up.
Although fatigued, he believes the benefits that come with being around his mates and representing his nation will prove a welcome tonic after his defeat in New York.
“There's a chance I can fly out tomorrow morning (Tuesday in New York) and get there but I'm not too sure when exactly I'll join the team,” he said.
“But I'm extremely looking forward to it because it's a different week and I think, no matter how tired you are, it brings different elements of camaraderie being around a team. You have got others to lift you up as well and it should be a lot of fun.
“Obviously the ambition is to do Australia proud, to keep doing what we're doing and … hopefully replicate what we've been able to accomplish over the last year. But we've got a pretty tough group, to say the least.”
De Minaur sits in 11th position in the ATP Tour Race for Turin, though Frances Tiafoe has an opportunity to jump him, and equal to his career-high ranking of 12 on live estimates.
After Manchester, he will take a break to recuperate before heading to China for the second week of the Asian swing with a clear view to achieving two significant milestones this year “There's still plenty to go. But (I have) Asia and the Davis Cup now,” he said.
“I’m going to be taking the first week of Asia off. I need some rest. And hopefully I'll be able to finish the year strong. And the top 10, Turin, that would be an ideal way to finish the year.”
De Minaur bookended his year at major level with Rd of 16 results at the Australian and US Opens and has clearly been the best-performed local in a testing year.
But Rinky Hijikata, who has headed to North Carolina for a reset before he too ventures to China beginning with the Zhuhai Championships on September 20, deserves praise as well.
The Sydneysider was trumped by Tiafoe in his fourth round match on Louis Armstrong Stadium a day earlier and was feeling some soreness after his breakout run.
This has propelled him inside the top 100 for the first time in his career _ he currently sits at a live ranking of 81 _ and he is determined to become a permanent ATP Tour fixture.
“I feel like a lot of people go a long time in their career, their whole career, not making a second week of a slam and to be able to do that, in my head, it's a pretty big deal,” he said.
“That was a pretty big goal of mine and to tick that off so early in my career, I'm pretty happy with that.
“But also, in saying that, I feel like I still have to get a lot better. There's a lot of things I need to improve if I want to be able to kind of match it with the top guys. That's my end goal.
“I'm not satisfied … being where I am at the moment. I want to keep improving and keep on pushing and getting better. So … I guess it's a mixed bag.
“I'm happy with the results I've had and take a lot of confidence away from it, but at the same time, I know I have to get a lot better.”
In other Australian news, De Minaur’s fellow Davis Cup teammate Thanasi Kokkinakis was flying out of New York to join teammates including Max Purcell on Wednesday.
Matt Ebden is due to play a US Open doubles quarterfinal alongside Rohan Bopanna in New York on Tuesday afternoon.
Jason Kubler, who withdrew from his opening round match with a knee injury after dropping the first set, is understood to have subsequently undergone a scan on the joint.
Jordan Thompson, who also had to withdraw from an opening round match citing pain in his Achilles, was able to compete in a doubles match on the following day.
With Hijikata’s progression into the top 100, Australia now has nine men with double-digit rankings next to their name, while Nick Kyrgios has the option of using an injury-protected ranking should he regain peak fitness.