Jack Draper’s love for Rafael Nadal extended to a child he even used to copy the serial Grand Slam champion’s iconic sleeveless shirt and headband look.
Now the 21-year-old Briton is preparing to share a court with one of his “heroes” when he takes on Nadal – the defending champion and top seed – on his Australian Open debut.
A confident, self-assured character who doesn’t possess an ounce of arrogance, Draper truly believes he can cause an upset.
The southpaw 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 262nd a year ago.
Notable victories came against top 10 players Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime late last year, as he started this season by reaching the semi-finals of a preparation tournament for the ‘Australian Open in Adelaide.
Beat Nadal, 36, who admits he’s ‘vulnerable’ after winning just once in his last seven games, would propel Draper further to stardom.
“There’s a side where he’s the 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 thought on the plane, I’ve come a long way myself, but I have to get my mind off who I’m playing against and go out and try to do my best.”
Without Nadal – or Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and British hero Andy Murray – Draper says he wouldn’t be the player he is.
But it’s not just iconic tennis stars that Draper continues to draw inspiration from.
“As a kid I was always intrigued by people who were good at their own sport,” he told BBC Sport at Melbourne Park.
“Michael Jordan, Ayrton Senna, Conor McGregor when he was on the come-up, all those athletes who achieved great things in their sport.
“I find their backgrounds and mentality so interesting and I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about that stuff.
“I watched the Senna documentary and although there was such a sad ending, it was amazing; it inspired me a lot.
“Watching this, and other docs, I learned about their ability to deal with adversity, deal with tough things mentally, and what it takes to be a professional athlete.”
A family guy who loves his labradoodle
As 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 a glossy fashion magazine.
But Draper says he’s happiest spending time at home with his family, friends and his labradoodle, which is, rather this week, called Aussie.
He describes himself as a ‘great family guy’ who enjoys being a ‘normal 21 year old’ when he is back in the UK.
Spending time at home is starting to become a rare luxury for a top tennis player who lives on the road, and Draper is starting to experience it more as he embarks on what is still only his first full season on the ATP Tour.
The nature of the sport means that it can be difficult for some young players to form friendships with people of the same age, the majority of the time being spent with members of their team – coaches, physios, physical trainers – who are generally more aged.
Draper’s coach James Trotman understands the importance of helping the youngster develop as a person as well as an athlete.
“We’re talking about him building relationships with other players on tour who are going through the same thing and nurturing his relationships with some of his friends already in British tennis,” Trotman said. BBC Radio 5 Live’s Australian Open preview broadcast.
“We get along very well. He has a good sense of humor.
“We’ll talk about sports, 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 exhibition in Adelaide. He’s still happening Something.”
A ‘physical specimen’ aimed at putting fitness issues behind
While Draper is only breaking through at the highest level, he has long been well known in British tennis circles thanks to strong family ties.
Draper’s mother Nicky – whom the player considers one of his biggest influences – is a coach and former junior champion, while father Roger was the chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association.
Draper himself first caught the attention of a wider British audience with a run to the Wimbledon junior final in 2018.
But a series of physical problems hampered his progress in the following years, including when he collapsed at the Miami Open in 2021 with heat-related illness.
Last year, he was also forced to withdraw from his US Open third round match despite being in a decent position against Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov.
Developing his body for the rigors of the ATP Tour was a priority, which led to the hiring of former Olympic sprinter and bobsledder Dejan Vojnovic as a physical trainer.
“When I first met him he was a fiery competitor but he was quite small,” said Trotman, who has known Draper since he was a teenager.
“Now he’s 6ft 4in and a physical specimen, but he only grew a bit later than most.
“Everyone knows his potential, but when we started working together about 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 making him healthy and competitive.”
As Draper continues his physical development, there are few questions about his talent and mentality.
Former world number one Murray trained and trained regularly with Draper, saying he ‘knows how good’ the youngster already is.
“Jack is a big server, he’s a big guy and he also plays with a lot of top-spin,” 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 keen tennis player”, while Davis Cup teammate Dan Evans says he has been impressed with his younger colleague’s growing maturity.
“I think he’s pretty calm. A loss is a loss, a win is a win. It’s not too high or too low,” Evans said.
“I think it’s a good thing that tennis is not the be-all and end-all and its outlook on life is also good.”
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 equally important to be humble.
“Above all, I want to be a good person at the end of it all,” he said.