Melbourne, Australia, 7 February 2021 | Leigh Rogers

When Li Tu makes his Australian Open debut this week, he’ll also be setting a shining example of patience and second chances.

The 24-year-old was a promising teen player, representing Australia in Junior Davis Cup alongside fellow South Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis. But just before his 16th birthday, he decided pursuing a professional career was not the right pathway for him.

Instead, Tu turned his attention to education. He completed high school, then later obtained a commerce and marketing degree in his home town of Adelaide.

“I had this thought that if I worked hard enough in the classroom, the results were going to come. I didn’t have that feeling with tennis. It was a lot more uncertain,” Tu related to Universal Tennis last year.

Tu stayed involved in the sport, competing in the Adelaide State League and starting his own coaching business. But content with his life, he no longer dreamed of playing professional tennis.

“I really had closed that chapter in my life,” he said.

Tu entered last year’s UTR Pro Tennis Series in Adelaide with few expectations and surprised even himself to sweep three titles.

“I was genuinely enjoying myself,” Tu said. “I really didn’t care whether I won or lost when I was competing. It was fun to be just back out there. Before, I used to think too much about the expectations of being the favourite and having this pressure on you to win and this idea that if I don’t win, I’ll look bad.”

Inspired by his performances, Tu reconnected with strength and conditioning coach Daniel Buberis and began training seriously again.

Tu continued to test himself at the UTR Pro Tennis Series, competing in events in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. He won 34 of his 36 matches across the series, which included a victory against world No.125 Marc Polmans in a final at Bendigo last month.

His impressive form caught the attention of Tennis Australia wildcard selectors, who gave him an opportunity to compete at the Melbourne Summer Series. In his ATP-level debut, Tu lost to world No.108 Pedro Sousa in two tight sets.

The chance to also compete at this week’s Australian Open is an unexpected bonus.

Former world No.1 Andy Murray had forfeited his wildcard and his late withdrawal meant that any Australian players who had competed in the qualifying event were ineligible to receive the reassigned wildcard.

This almost included Tu. He was set to receive a last-minute wildcard into the Australian Open qualifying event, but was unable to travel to Doha in time to compete.

That bad luck has now worked out to his advantage, with Tu handed the final Australian Open main draw singles wildcard on Friday.

> READ: 13 Aussie men ready for Australian Open 2021

The unranked Tu will face 39-year-old Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez in the opening round.

Excited for the opportunity, Tu is not feeling pressure ahead of his showdown with the world No.63.

“It’s almost an advantage in some ways that there’s no expectations,” Tu told The Age.

“I know that if I play my best I can actually beat half the draw, I reckon. I say that quite confidently, but I feel like I’m playing well enough where I can beat a lot of these players if I’ve got a good day.”

Tennis Australia’s Director of Performance Wally Masur and esteemed coach Darren Cahill, whose children have been taught by Tu, are among his high-profile supporters.

“I talked to Wally and Darren and they were both like, ‘Keep your head down, you’re not here to make up the numbers. We wouldn’t put you in the draw if we didn’t think you couldn’t beat a lot of these players,’ which was quite reassuring for me,” Tu related to The Age.

“I honestly believe, as well, that I’m playing at level where I can turn some heads.”

Now committed to pursuing a professional career, Tu also hopes to inspire others and prove that it is never too late to enjoy on-court success.

“I want to set an example to the juniors coming up,” Tu told the Herald Sun. “I’m 24, so (for) 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.”

Tickets for Australian Open 2021 are available through Ticketmaster.