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Aussie men's tennis battalion out to end Paris drought

3 minute read

The biggest Australian men's contingent at the French Open this century can end their first-week hoodoo at Roland Garros, believes rising star Rinky Hijikata.

RINKY HIJIKATA. Picture: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Australia's biggest battalion of men's players at Roland Garros for a quarter-of-a-century will pile into the main draw of next week's French Open - and at least one of them is going to buck a dispiriting trend.

That's the encouraging forecast of Rinky Hijikata, one of the nine-strong contingent in the top-100 all seeking to become the first Australian man to reach the second week of the claycourt slam singles in 17 years.

Getting trampled into the red Paris dirt before the first week's out has become a bit of a grisly recent ritual, far removed from those 1960s glory days when Rod Laver and co lifted the title seven times in eight years.

But 23-year-old Hijikata, still a bit of a wide-eyed beginner on the ATP circuit, has been impressed by the growing strength of his strong band of Aussie pals on tour to believe one of them can become the first since Lleyton Hewitt, who got to the last-16 in 2007, to enjoy a similarly deep run.

Starting with the main man, Alex de Minaur.

"Demon's going to be a threat on any surface he plays, a top-10 calibre player who's had an incredible year," Hijikata told AAP, explaining how inspired he is by working with world No.11 de Minaur in practice.

"He's just beaten Rafa (Nadal) on clay and had some big results, so I don't see any reason why he can't go on a deep run in Paris.

"It is an inspiration, just to have someone around who's as humble and dedicated as he is, and as generous with his time for the other Australian players.

"But it's not just Alex. There are also a lot of guys that fly under the radar a little bit. Big Pop (Alexei Popyrin), clay's maybe his favourite surface, he was boys' champion here and he's got the weapons to do a lot of damage on the surface.

"Chris O'Connell has played a lot, played well on the dirt also, and Tommo (Jordan Thompson) can play good tennis on the clay.

"There are definitely guys who can make a push next week, even if it's not their preferred surface."

And he includes himself, of course, even as an absolute beginner on clay, feeling he can build on his exceptional 2023 campaign, which culminated in a fine wildcard run to the US Open fourth round.

"What I've already learned is that anything can happen on clay. My career up to this point has been full of surprises, so you never know.

"The best-of-five format helps me, I feel like I've played some of my best tennis in grand slams.

"It's kinda of been my first year of playing mainly tour events, it's been really cool, a great experience. It's been a little bit of a learning curve but I'm motivated, pumped to put some big results on the board - and feel I'm not far off."

As the youngest of the nine to feature in the top-100, the other, more experienced Aussies have taken Hijikata under their wing.

"They've been great to me. I'm just trying to learn off their experiences and keep pushing every day, and, hopefully, all the Aussie boys will keep pushing each other to get better."

Just one word of warning, though. When Australia last had nine men in the first round in 1999, including the third seed Pat Rafter and 10th seed Mark Philippoussis, still nobody made the second week. Plus ca change....

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