|Dates: January 16-29 place: Melbourne Park|
|Coverage: Daily radio commentary on the 5 Sports Extra/BBC Sport website and app, with selected live text commentary and match reports on the website and app|
Jack Draper’s love for Rafael Nadal went so far back when he was a kid that he even copied the serial Grand Slam winner’s iconic tank top and headband.
Now the 21-year-old Brit is preparing to share the court with one of his “heroes” when he faces Nadal – the defending champion and top seed – in his Australian Open debut.
A confident and self-assured character who does not possess an iota of arrogance, Draper truly believes he can cause an upset.
The left-hander has been one of the fastest climbers on the ATP Tour over the past six months, moving into the top 40 in the world after being ranked 262 a year ago.
He achieved notable victories against players from the top 10 Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime at the end of last year, while he started this season by reaching the semifinals of the preparatory tournament for the Australian Open in Adelaide.
Defeating the 36-year-old Nadal, who admits to being “vulnerable” having won just once in his past seven bouts, he would push Draper further towards superstardom.
“There’s one side of it where he’s a 22-time Grand Slam champion, one of the greatest of all time. But at the same time he’s one of my competitors now,” Draper said.
“I was thinking when I was on the plane, I’ve come a long way myself, but I have to forget who I’m playing with and go out there and try to do the best I can.”
Without Nadal – or Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and British hero Andy Murray – Draper says he would not be the player he is.
But Draper doesn’t just draw inspiration from legendary tennis stars.
“When I was a kid I was always intrigued by people who excelled at their sport,” he told BBC Sport at Melbourne Park.
“Michael Jordan, Ayrton Senna, Conor McGregor when he was in a rush, all those athletes who achieved great things in their sport.
“I find their journeys and mentality so interesting and I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about that kind of thing.
“I watched the Senna documentary and, although the ending was so sad, it was amazing; it inspired me a lot.
“Watching those and other docs, I learned from their ability to deal with adversity, to deal with things that are mentally tough and things that are necessary to be a professional athlete.”
Family guy who loves his Labradoodle
A huge Manchester United fan, Draper also has a keen interest in football and enjoyed chatting with England midfielder Declan Rice at a recent event for the glossy fashion magazine.
But Draper says he’s happiest when he’s hanging out at home with family, friends and his labradoodle, who is rather aptly named Aussie this week.
He describes himself as a “big family man” who likes to be a “normal 21-year-old” when he’s back home in the UK.
But spending time at home is starting to become a rare luxury for a top tennis player who lives on the road, and Draper is experiencing that more and more as he embarks on what is still his first full season on the ATP Tour.
The nature of the sport means that it can be difficult for some younger players to form friendships with people of the same age, as they spend most of their time with people on their team – coaches, physios, fitness trainers – who are usually older.
Draper’s coach James Trotman understands the importance of helping a young man develop as a person as well as an athlete.
“We talk about how he makes relationships with other players on the tour who are going through the same thing and maintains relationships with some of his friends who are already in British tennis,” Trotman said. BBC Radio 5 Live Australian Open preview show.
“We get along great. He has a good sense of humor.
“We’ll talk about sport, we’ll talk about what’s going on in the UK in the news, he likes to play cards. I also managed to ‘drag’ him to an art show in Adelaide. There’s always something going on.”
A ‘fitness specimen’ that aims to solve fitness problems
While Draper is just breaking through at the highest level, he has been known in British tennis circles for a long time through strong family connections.
Draper’s mother Nicky – whom the player credits as one of his biggest influences – is a coach and former junior champion, while his father Roger was chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association.
Sam Draper first came to the attention of the wider British public by entering the 2018 Wimbledon junior final.
But a series of physical problems hampered his progress in subsequent years, most notably when he collapsed at the 2021 Miami Open due to heat illness.
Last year, he was also forced to withdraw from a third-round match at the US Open when he was in a decent position against Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov.
Developing his body for the demands of the ATP Tour was a priority, leading to the hiring of former Olympic sprinter and bobsledder Dejan Vojnović as his conditioning coach.
“When I first met him, he was a fierce competitor, but he was pretty small,” said Trotman, who has known Draper since he was a teenager.
“He’s 6ft 4in now and a physical specimen, but he’s grown a bit later than most.
“Everyone knows his potential, but when we started working together, 15 months ago, one of the main goals was for him to stay fit and try to compete for 12 months.
“Without that, I don’t think he would be where he is today. The biggest change was getting healthy and competing.”
While Draper continues his physical development, there is little question about his talent and mentality.
Former world number one Murray trained and practiced regularly with Draper, saying he “knows how good” the younger player is.
“Jack is a big server, he’s a big guy and he plays with a lot of topspin,” said the three-time Grand Slam champion.
“It’s a great opportunity for him against Rafa to go out there and see exactly where he is.”
Former British number one Laura Robson describes Draper as a “tennis lover”, while Davis Cup teammate Dan Evans says he is impressed by his younger colleague’s growing maturity.
“I think he’s pretty calm. A loss is a loss, a win is a win. He’s not too high, he’s not too low,” Evans said.
“I think it’s a good thing that tennis is not the be-all and end-all and its perspective is good for life as well.”
Following in Nadal’s footsteps as world number one and Grand Slam champion is Draper’s goal.
But as he also learned from the Spaniard – and other sporting greats – it’s just as important to be humble.
“Above all, I want to be a good person at the end of it all,” he said.