There was a collective gulp by Aussie tennis fans when James Duckworth’s name was called out beside Rafael Nadal during the Australian Open draw.
Nadal played in the Fast4 exhibition tournament in Sydney following his withdrawal from the Brisbane International due to injury, but there remains doubts over how the world No.2 will fare at Melbourne Park.
Veteran Aussie journeyman John Millman believes there’s every chance Duckworth could pull off the unthinkable against the Spaniard, despite the 236 ranking spots that separate them.
“I don’t think you can ever write off an Australian,” Millman told Wide World of Sports.
“We don’t know where Rafa is at. I played him in Fast4, and I thought back then he still had a little bit of improvement out of his body to come.
“What I will say is, I think if you are going to play someone who has a little injury cloud, you want to play them early on in the tournament.
“James has worked as hard as anyone I know to give himself an opportunity to play in a major at the Australian Open after all the little setbacks he’s had with his body. There’d be no-one more deserving of causing an upset than Ducks.”
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With Duckworth ranked 238th in the world, the money is firmly placed in Nadal’s corner for the round-one match up.
Nadal has struggled to overcome niggling injuries in recent years, but when at his best there’s no doubting the 17-time grand slam champion’s firepower.
Millman said he has been impressed with what he’s seen from Duckworth in the lead-up to the Australian Open though, and rates the New South Welshman’s chances against the 2009 champion. Because if there’s one thing the pair obviously share, it’s a lion-hearted determination no matter the setback.
“Ducks has had probably four or five surgeries in the last two years, so every time he’s come back he’s done a lot of work off the court to try and extend his career and give himself every chance to have an injury free run,” Millman said.
“I think he is very fit right now. I was hitting with him in Brisbane and I thought he was playing some good stuff, he just needs everything to click.
“I know how hard it is to come back from those injury setbacks the way he has, when a lot of people would have just thrown in the towel. I think it’s really admirable.”
Millman said that Duckworth might not be the only local hope to produce an upset victory at the Australian Open either.
Though the draw was unkind to Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, Millman said there are “question marks” over their opponents.
“I wouldn’t put it past a couple of Australians to cause a few upsets,” he said.
“We know that Bernie and Nick are talented enough.
“Nick plays Milos Raonic, that’ll be a ding-dong serving affair, definitely not easy for either player, and trust me, Milos would not have wanted to get Nick first round.
“Bernie plays Marin Cilic who is coming in a little underdone by his own admission. He played just one exhibition at the Kooyong Classic and he had a few little injuries towards the end of last season.
“And Alex de Minaur, well he is playing great tennis.
“Last year he probably shocked the tennis community with how quickly he improved. He’s got potentially a third round match up against Rafa, but hopefully James Duckworth can beat Rafa first round.”
As for Millman himself, he’ll line up against Federico Delbonis in the first round, and despite illness hampering his run in to the Australian Open, in true Millman fashion, there’s little doubt in his mind he’ll be raring to go come Monday.
“I’m still a little clogged up, but I’m getting better each day. I feel like I’ve got plenty of matches under my belt and I feel like my game is in a good place which is really positive,” he said.
“I play Federico, who’s a really big left hander; loves to play on the clay courts. He’s actually a very tricky customer.
“I played him at Båstad last year [Swedish Open in July] and he got me there so I’m going to have to play some really good tennis. But that’s what you expect at an Australian Open. There’s no such thing as an easy draw.”
John Millman spoke to Wide World of Sports on behalf of Mastercard, the Official Payment Partner of the Australian Open Series, for their initiative breaking down the physical barriers that divide neighbours, their backyard fences, and replacing them with tennis nets for neighbours to rally together.