South Australian tennis player Li Tu has struck gold after grinding it out and rebooting his career during the COVID-disrupted 2020 season.
Once a highly rated junior, potential failed to yield results during the step up to the professional ranks and Tu shifted priorities towards university and a junior coaching business.
But a strong showing in last year’s UTR series across Australia have helped secure the prize of a lifetime: a wildcard into the 2021 Australian Open.
Tu, now 24, won nearly every match he played in the UTR tournaments against fellow Australians, earning nearly $20,000 in prize money.
“I can’t believe it was just five months ago that I made the call that I would give it a crack,” he told the Australian in December.
“I have had some pretty amazing results to finish the year.”
The performances did not go unnoticed as Darren Cahill, the Australian coach of world No.2 Simona Halep, became Tu’s leading advocate within the professional tennis ranks.
Further support from Tennis Australia followed and Tu played his first official ATP-sanctioned match earlier this week in Melbourne.
He put up a fight before Portugal’s Pedro Sousa secured a 6-4 7-6 (7-5) victory.
While that appearance earned Tu just $2500 and zero ranking points, the good news kept coming on Friday.
The Australian Open announced the wildcard initially given to former world No.1 Andy Murray, who withdrew when he tested positive to coronavirus, has been redirected towards Tu.
Tu will earn 10 ranking points just for showing up in the first round of the Australian Open next week – and a healthy $100,000.
Lu has been drawn to play the 39-year-old Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez.
Victory would push the Aussie towards an ATP ranking of around 600 – far higher than his previous best mark of 1188th – and extend his earnings to $150,000.
“I want to set an example to the juniors coming up,” Tu told the Herald Sun last week as he awaited news of his wildcard hopes.
“I’m 24, so the juniors at 15, 16 who think they have only a little bit of time left … winning and losing is not everything at that age.”
World No.1’s big chance
Ash Barty will launch her Australian Open assault against world No.77 Danke Kovinic while the draw hasn’t been overly kind to Australia’s leading men’s hopes.
Women’s top seed for the second year running, Barty could face compatriot Daria Gavrilova in the second round at Melbourne Park.
If she makes the second week, as she has done the past two years, world No.1 Barty’s first big test is likely to come against 16th seed Petra Martic in the fourth round.
Former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova or 11th seed Belinda Bencic could be lurking in the quarter-finals, with defending champion Sofia Kenin looming as the projected semi-final opponent for Barty.
Kenin ended Barty’s campaign at the same stage last year after the Queenslander became the first local woman since Wendy Turnbull in 1984 to reach the Open semi-finals.
Other heavyweights in Barty’s half of the draw include two-time Open champion Victoria Azarenka and fifth seed Elina Svitolina.
All in all, it’s an inviting draw for Barty – not that she’s getting carried away.
“The depth in womens’ tennis is exceptionally strong. There are certainly no easy matches,” she said.
“I think everyone is in a little bit of the same boat in the sense it’s a start of a new season, not many matches under our belts, but I think that can bring out the best in you sometimes.
“You have to fight and scrap and find a way to get through those tough matches to get yourself a chance to continue to improve and get another opportunity to play.”
Australian men’s No.1 Alex de Minaur will start against dual quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren and has landed in the same section of the draw as second-seeded world No.2 Rafael Nadal.
– with Darren Walton, AAP