Melbourne, Australia , 14 January 2023 | Darren Parkin

Many interested eyes will be on Australia’s Rinky Hijikata as he makes his main-draw debut at Australian Open 2023.

The 21-year-old from New South Wales is appearing in back-to-back Grand Slam main draws, having famously taken a set off Rafael Nadal at last year’s US Open on his debut at that level.

Hijikata’s reputation as a player for the big occasion was only enhanced at last week’s Adelaide International, where he pushed Canada’s Denis Shapovalov to three hard-fought sets.

The Aussie dropped only four points on serve in the first set of that match, and his ranking of world No.164 looks destined to rise.

In claiming a breakthrough ATP Challenger title at Playford last October, he became the youngest Aussie male to win an event at that level since Alexei Popyrin in 2018.

A two-time winner of the Male Junior Athlete of the Year at the Australian Tennis Awards, Hijikata has won six ITF titles in the past 18 months and faced two top-five players in the past six months.

“It’s not often you get to play a player of that calibre,” Hijikata noted after his US Open clash with Nadal, which followed a meeting with then-world No.1 Daniil Medvedev at Los Cabos in August.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to go out there on the biggest stages of tennis and try to have a big crack at players like that. I’m excited for those challenges.

“That was probably one of the biggest matches I’ve ever played.

“That was a great experience for me, I think I learned a lot from that. The atmosphere and everything was a bit different than anything I’ve ever played in.

“I guess all the good players have a bit of an aura around them maybe and once you step out on-court, you don’t really know what to expect the first time.”

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In summarising his past 12 months, Hijikata explained how he is learning to understand the ups and downs of professional sport.

“There’s been some really good patches and then there’s been some patches where I’ve been struggling a bit, but I guess that’s kind of life on tour,” he said.

“You’re not going to be able to win and play well every week so it’s kind of just dealing with the losses and dealing with the weeks where you aren’t doing so well.”

John Millman has echoed that outlook in recent months, Hijikata finding the veteran Australian’s broader advice invaluable.

“He came and chatted when we were on the Junior Davis Cup team, and he just said that you’re never going to be able to play at a level if you don’t believe that you belong there,” he explained.

“That’s something that I’ve taken to heart, and I guess every level that I step up, I try to back the work you’ve put in and all the hard work you’ve done in your training.

“You hope that puts you in good stead and you have the belief that you deserve your spot here and you do deserve to be there. I think it’s easy to get swept away with guys’ rankings, their achievements. Stepping up levels, it can be tough.”

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Hijikata has gone 95-42 in the past two years and finished last season with a 12-5 run after that US Open meeting with Nadal.

He won through qualifying at the Adelaide International prior to that clash with Shapovalov.

With an appetite for the big stage, an improving ranking and a level head, this is unlikely to be the only time we see Rinky Hijikata at Melbourne Park.

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