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Boys champ to old pro, Popyrin still dreams in Paris

Seven years since he became French Open junior champion and dreamed idly that it would be the launch pad for a Carlos Alcaraz-style, rocket man ascent, Alexei Popyrin offers a reflective smile.

"Yeah, it is a long time ago … and it feels like a long time ago," he sighs.

They seem like ancient history, those pictures of that long-haired, stick-thin 17-year-old with a beaming smile, holding aloft the boys' prize previously won by the likes of Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe.

Even the arena where it happened, the beloved old Court 1 'bullring', has long since bitten the dust.

"And if you told myself back then how much work there was to be done to get to where I have, I wouldn't have believed you," Popyrin, now a battle-hardened 24-year-old, two-time ATP tournament winner who's still dreaming big dreams, tells AAP.

"Going into becoming a pro, I expected big things for myself. I expected, somewhat unrealistically, to have a Carlos Alcaraz career.

Popyrin on board
Popyrin still feels he can reach the top of the game long after his junior success. (AP PHOTO)

"But everybody has their own path, and on mine, there's been a lot of lessons learned, a lot of right and wrong decisions made, and now I think I'm on a really good path to just try to get to where I want to get, where I believe I can get to -- and that's still the top of the game."

And each time he enters the Roland Garros grounds, those memories of 2017 act as a reminder of what's possible.

"Although the court that I won on is not even there anymore, when I'm in the grounds, I feel good all the time, it's great.

"That junior win was extra special, being the first Aussie in I don't know how long to have won the title was something amazing.

"And the biggest memory was after I won. I looked into my player's box and saw how happy my parents were, how proud they were.

"That was something for me that I'll never forget; the look on their face. Then after I shook hands with the umpire, I went straight to them, gave them a hug, thanked them for all the sacrifices they'd done, and they were just super proud and happy."

Popyrin wins
Popyrin whooping after his victory over Spain's Nicola Kuhn in the 2017 boys final. (EPA PHOTO)

"My parents made the decision to leave Australia, which didn't have too many clay courts, when we were super young to go and focus to play on the clay in Spain and that propelled my career to where it is right now."

Seven years on, his mum and dad will take a trip from their base in Nice in the south of France to watch their boy again in first-round action against Thanasi Kokkinakis in a terrific all-Australian first-round ding-dong on Tuesday.

A domestic dust-up against a pal isn't exactly ideal for Popyrin and neither was a recent food poisoning episode and an abdomen muscle tear that interrupted his encouraging start to the season.

"But I feel like my game is somewhat back to what it was early on in the year," enthuses the man who earned his biggest win on clay against the defending champion Andrey Rublev, then the world No.6, in Monte Carlo in April.

"I definitely do feel anything's possible this fortnight. For example, (Nicolas) Jarry last week in Rome reached the final and he hadn't won a match since Miami.

"You're always going to have at least one or two surprises in the tournament. Who's to say somebody who's not top-seeded won't make semi-finals. I think it's possible; hopefully it's me."