WIMBLEDON -- Alex de Minaur walked out onto Centre Court for the first time Saturday unsure of what to expect. He left knowing it is exactly where he wants to be: playing the big players on big courts.
The Australian teenager produced a performance beyond his 19 years but ultimately fell short in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 third-round loss to world No. 1 Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, on a day where compatriots Nick Kyrgios, Ashleigh Barty, Daria Gavrilova and Matthew Ebden also exited the championship.
However, the Centre Court experience capped a breakthrough grass-court season for the youngster, who picked up his first-ever ATP Challenge Tour title in Nottingham last month and will break into the world's top 70 when the latest world rankings are released. He said facing Nadal was "something that I will remember forever."
It wasn't just on the court that he will have captured the eye of a tennis great, as two Australian legends and former Wimbledon champions were watching on. Rod Laver was a guest of the All England Club and observed the match from the Royal Box, while Lleyton Hewitt is something of a mentor to de Minaur, although not his official coach.
Yet de Minaur was fearless and covered a baking hot court with bundles of energy, attacking from the off. Eventually, both occasion and inexperience saw him dip at crucial moments. Nadal was able to pick him off in just over two hours despite a flutter of troublesome moments for the French Open champion.
At times, Nadal needed his best. De Minaur's thundering, flat groundstrokes, tremendous passing shots and fizzing slices won the crowd's affections and tested the Spaniard, who had said coming into this match that it would prove a good challenge. In the fifth game of the second set, de Minaur produced a thunderous backhand that left Nadal swatting thin air, as if batting away those flying ants that visited SW19 earlier this week. In the eighth game, they traded ludicrous tweeners at the end of a mesmerising rally. De Minaur left a good impression on the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
"His style of game probably works well for this surface in the future," Nadal said. "Always there is a positive feeling you go on court with. [There is] not much to lose [for de Minaur]. If you win two matches, great; if you win three, unbelievable. It's a different way to see the sport when you are that young."
Nonetheless, having soaked up moments of rapturous applause and the "incredible" atmosphere from a crowd shouting his name, "Demon" refused to get carried away. This is still a defeat and a marker as to what is needed to compete at the elite level.
De Minaur is keen to learn and was honest in his assessment. He needs to work harder and get better so that next time he is in this situation he can push his opponent more and convert the chances he gets. That is a prerequisite when facing someone of Nadal's calibre.
"It's just incredible, his [Nadal's] physicality -- that's probably what shocked me the most," said de Minaur, who also speaks Spanish and French. "You watch him on TV, and you can't really appreciate how hard he hits every single ball and how much intensity and just brute force goes into every one of his ground strokes. I took it all in today."
But with Hewitt at his side, de Minaur is in good hands. He has a good relationship with Australia's Davis Cup captain and trains at his academy in the Bahamas. His power from the baseline is reminiscent of Hewitt's counter-punching style from the back of the court.
There were parallels with Hewitt's own journey as de Minaur took to court Saturday. Wearing his baseball cap backward, de Minaur bellowed "C'mon!" in similar fashion to his mentor, evoking memories among the crowd and seated press alike.
Some 19 years ago, Hewitt's Centre Court debut had ended almost the same way, in a third-round defeat to former champion Boris Becker. The scoreline that day -- 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 in the German's favour -- is akin to de Minaur's exit, improving by the set, even in defeat. Hewitt had forewarned his charge what to expect -- take it all in and embrace the moment, because next time it will be different. "It won't be new; you'll be used to it," said de Minaur reflectively.
Hewitt famously went on to win Wimbledon in 2002, four years after treading the Centre Court lawn for the first time. De Minaur has already proven he can win -- and win well -- on grass and has the hunger to improve.
"It's the season that I always enjoy," he said. "I love every second of it. You know, I was able to play some great tennis, which makes it even better. I can't wait for what's next."