Jack Draper wields a rare, winning combination of Grit and Left Howitzers

Jack Draper-Julian Finney/Getty Images

Jack Draper-Julian Finney/Getty Images

Britain’s fast-rising tennis star Jack Draper was delighted to review the US Open draw the other day and spot his second-round opponent: Canadian sixth seed Félix Auger-Aliassime.

As a young man in a hurry, Draper has long followed Auger-Aliassime’s precocious career with envious eyes. So he was highly motivated for their first meeting on Wednesday night.

‘When I was a teenager,’ Draper had told Telegraph Sport last year, ‘I always looked at guys like Felix’ – a 21-year-old who became the youngest player to break the top 200 in 2017 since Rafael Nadal – ‘and think’ I’m not so good.’ But I have learned that everyone has to go their own way.”

In the case of 20-year-old Draper, that journey was coupled with a late growth spurt — beginning when he was 17 — that spawned a spate of nagging injuries. After spending most of his junior career as an underpowered baseline retriever, he suddenly realized he was 6ft 4in tall with the broad shoulders of a rugby three-quarters.

Like a superhero discovering unexpected gifts, Draper practically woke up to the 136mph serve he used to defeat Auger-Aliassime in straight sets: 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

The funny thing about Draper – who will be breaking the top 50 after this tournament whether or not he beats Russia’s Karen Khachanov on Friday night – is that he finds it unnatural to play like a classic tennis skyscraper and behind this mighty one to charge forward on serve and try to knock over his opponent’s block.

All that mental conditioning from the juniors means Draper is instead a die-hard customer — a grinder by nature who hates giving away freebies. “He was such a fighter, such a fighter,” said Justin Sherring, his childhood coach. “He was always the thinnest, always the shortest.”

Jack Draper plays Karen Khachanov at Flushing Meadows on Friday - Frey/TPN/Getty Images

Jack Draper plays Karen Khachanov at Flushing Meadows on Friday – Frey/TPN/Getty Images

Draper himself feels he had a target on his back from a young age, being the son of former Lawn Tennis Association executive Roger Draper. “There was quite a bit of jealousy,” he told Telegraph Sport in 2020, “people think I’ll get better treatment or whatever.”

Whatever the explanation, “Jack has a lot of mongrels in his character,” according to British trainer Calvin Betton. As a result, his tennis is a rare and interesting combination – a hard-headed mindset fused with the power to occasionally bring out the howitzer. Throw in the left-handedness that Draper’s serve curves toward most players’ backhands, and you can see why he’s confusing almost everyone on tour.

On Wednesday night, Draper used his heavily topspun left forehand to target the backhand wing. It was a tactic Auger-Aliassime was never able to defuse. He either hit big and missed, or tried to fight his way out of trouble only to find Draper covering the court brilliantly.

Draper has worked hard on his physique and is now so strong and balanced that he can slide in both directions on acrylic hard courts as if he were playing on clay – a trait he shares with the world’s best hard court player Novak Djokovic.

There are still weaknesses that need to be addressed, as Draper himself is the first to admit. His first serve, while fast, isn’t particularly accurate, as evidenced by the fact that he’s missing 50 percent of the time in this event.

And then you have the whole problem of getting on the web — something Draper rarely had a chance to do in his formative years. Greg Rusedski, another high-profile left-hander, watches Draper’s volleys and transitions with the pained expression of a French chef checking the menu at a New York diner.

Still, the ingredients for a long and rewarding career are clearly here. Draper’s spectacular rise has already carried him up more than 200 spots in the rankings over the past year, echoing Andy Murray’s similar explosion in the mid-noughties. If everyone has to go their own way, as Draper put it last year, then their sat nav points to the top.

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