MELBOURNE: ALEX DE MINAUR is clenching his right fist as he looks toward Lleyton Hewitt, sitting in his box. The Demon has just sprinted from metres behind the baseline to reach a drop volley from his opponent, Russian Andrey Rublev, that possibly no one else in the world could have ran down. Some players have sublime forehands, others cracking double-handed backhands. De Minaur has a serious set of wheels and boundless grit and determination. No drop volley, no matter how precisely placed, is safe when the Aussie is on the court.
This was easily the biggest game of the AO so far. Freshly minted top 10 player De Minaur against fifth-ranked Rublev on Rod Laver Arena; speed against strength, grit against power. It’s a dream match-up to cap Kia Sunday, a day that began for Esquire with an experience as mouth-watering to motoring enthusiasts as a marquee centre-court match-up is for sports fans: a chance to get behind the wheel of Kia’s new 7-seat SUV electric vehicle, the EV9.
CONFESSION, I’M AN EV virgin and so must go through the requisite and disconcerting sensation of pressing the ‘on’ button in the EV9 and being unsure if the car has actually started. I seriously can’t tell, but I shrug my shoulders and proceed to press on the accelerator regardless. Sure enough, we begin to roll silently out the driveway at Crown Promenade in Melbourne’s Southbank, our sat-nav set for a Brighton mansion.
As we make our way through mid-morning Melbourne traffic, first impressions are of driving a sturdy computer. While on the outside, the EV9 presents as big, boxy and rugged, an aesthetic that would see it as at home in Northern English countryside as it is eating up urban terrain, inside it boasts the kind of state-of-the art, minimalist tech that makes it accessible for EV novices like myself.
The pedal is responsive; I’m continually surprised by how fast we hit the speed limit, at which point a helpful beep suggests we rein it in. A novel feature of the EV9 are the digital side mirrors, which use cameras to reduce blind spots. I’m told these can take some getting used to, but to be honest, I soon forget I’m not looking in a mirror and am thankful for the increased visibility as I effortlessly shift lanes while cruising around Albert Park. A digital centre mirror, similarly improves sight lines, handy if your boot is piled high for a camping trip or one of your passengers is a big-headed tennis player with a robust mane of red hair (not looking at anyone in particular besides Kia Sunday’s bogeyman, Rublev!)
Another particularly nifty piece of tech is an augmented reality head-up display that projects key information on your windscreen, such as speed, navigation guidance and lane safety information. We truly are living in the future.
Of course, the question that always comes with EVs is charging. The EV9’s multi-charging system operates with both 400V and 800V chargers, without the need for an additional adapter, allowing you to charge at more locations. And with 76.1 kWh and 99.8 kWh batteries available you can get up to 500-plus kilometres on a full charge. In Esquire parlance, that’s sick levels of endurance. In tennis talk, it’s De Minaur-like.
Indeed, if I had to compare the EV9 to a tennis player, which seems like the logical comparison to make given Kia Sunday is a fusion of motoring and tennis, it has the finesse and minimal fuss of a Federer, the battery power of a De Minaur and the muscular assurance of a Nadal. Not a bad package, in other words.
At the mansion, which has some minor Succession vibes but thankfully no hints of spoilt dysfunctional siblings scheming in lavishly appointed living rooms, we’re greeted by Kia Australia ambassador, former Australian of the Year and multiple grand slam winner, Dylan Alcott, who, apropos of nothing, reveals that he once went to a party at this very house and drank two bottles of Passion Pop.
“I’m genuinely enjoying retirement,” says Alcott. “This will be my third hit of tennis in two years. I’m just enjoying doing other stuff. But I love the sport and I’m very lucky that the Australian Open is eight minutes from my house, so having that in your own backyard is pretty cool.”
He then proceeds to take us though a game of doubles ‘King of the Court’. Now, due to some dubious line calls my doubles partner and I are prevented from being coronated as ‘kings’. Kia ambassadors Lance Franklin and wife Jesinta have more ‘luck’ and are probably better suited as court royalty. I know my place.
Next, Alcott decides it might be fun if we take turns facing up to a serve from former pro player, Daniel Guccione, whose record serve is a blistering 220 km/h. Gulp. This farcical exercise goes about as well as you would expect, with our party of hapless journalists, influencers and content creators wetting our pants as blurs of yellow repeatedly streak past us. I am not humble enough to hide the fact that I am the only person in our party who manages to actually hit the ball (even Buddy’s doing air swings like he’s swotting mozzies), which does wonders for my self-esteem, and earns me resident ‘jock’ status among the group for the rest of the day.
“You played before?” enquires Alcott. “A little,” I deadpan, desperately trying to conceal my pride but succeeding only in blushing.
The hit-out whets the appetite for some real tennis, so we jump back in the EV9 and head back to the hotel, before piling into some specially branded white AO vehicles for the short trip to Melbourne Park.
Now, I was last at the AO about 20 years ago and in that time it’s transformed into a fully-fledged festival of tennis that’s part Flemington Birdcage, part jock Burning Man, with branded marquees, merch stands and live entertainment. You could easily wile away a day out here without even venturing inside and for the rest of the afternoon that’s precisely what we do, passing a lovely few hours in the Kia Suite, where Dylan hosts a party for all his friends and we watch Djokovic annihilate Adrian Mannarino in straight sets 6-0, 6-0, 6-3. All of us, except perhaps me, a Joker fanatic, are glad that we will not be watching the Serb in the evening session, instead anticipating a more even contest between De Minaur and Rublev. We won’t be disappointed.
ROD LAVER ARENA is rocking. The crowd has risen as one, galvanised by good-natured nationalistic fervour as De Minaur takes a two sets to one lead. After looking like he might be overmatched in the first set, which Rublev wins 6-4, the Aussie manages to even the ledger by winning a marathon 73-minute second set in a tiebreaker, the highlight being an ankle-high stretch around the net post, after a Rublev forehand veered towards the umpire’s chair.
The Demon prevails in another titanic struggle in the third, again winning in a tiebreaker. The Russian’s body language is telling. He glares at the crowd, gestures to the sky like an angry man incensed by seagulls. “Better not to be inside my head at this time,” he would say afterward, demonstrating acute self-awareness. “It’s like a scary movie.” Funnily enough, Skyhooks’ “Horror Movie” has just been blaring over the PA; it seems everything and everyone is against the Russian today.
And then. Then Rublev takes matters into his own hands. He will be the master of his fate on Kia Sunday. He starts swinging like this is an exhibition match and not a death match to secure a quarter-final berth. The problem for De Minaur is that these Tomahawk missiles masquerading as groundstrokes keep going in. The Russian smashes nine winners in the final set with just four unforced errors, breaking the Australian’s serve three times.
“He just let go, he started swinging and the balls went in,” De Minaur says glumly in his post-match press conference. “It’s not a match I lost physically, it’s just that the racquet was taken out of my hand. He was just standing and hitting from every single part of the court at Mach 10.”
Rublev acknowledges that he was going for broke, perhaps knowing that the most dangerous man alive is the one with nothing to lose. “I was just trying not to think about it, I was just trying to push myself,” he said. “Don’t cry, don’t start to feel sorry to yourself.”
It’s a remarkable display of pure hitting and as I walk out of Rod Laver Arena, I feel compelled to add the mighty Russian to the cohort of tennis stars who comprise my earlier EV9 tennis analogy: the car is as formidable as Rublev. So yeah, not a bad package indeed.
For more information on Kia’s EV9 visit kia.com