The tears said it all.
He tried his best to suppress them, but Thanasi Kokkinakis could only do so much to contain the emotion; all that it meant for him to be through to the second round of the Australian Open. Now 24, he hadn’t won a main-draw match at his home Slam since 2015, the year he first cracked the Top 100 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, as part of a promising crop of countrymen — Kokkinakis, Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic, James Duckworth, etc. — that was collectively positioning itself to take the baton from Hall-of-Famer-to-be Lleyton Hewitt.
Hewitt was already familiar with his fellow South Australian’s firepower by then, encouraged by his obvious talent. The green-and-gold Davis Cup roster was suddenly looking stacked.
But those tears shed after the wild card’s 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Soonwoo Kwon of Korea on Tuesday were manifestation of the heartbreak, all the setbacks that Kokkinakis has experienced since that early breakthrough a half-dozen years ago.
“It’s been a while,” said Kokkinakis, No. 267 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, his lowest showing since 2017. “It was just so much stuff behind the scenes to get back to that point. Not a lot of people realise that, apart from my team and friends and family. I definitely got a bit emotional.”
Beset by injuries, Kokkinakis has struggled to stay on the court in recent years. He would play just one match in 2016 after having surgery on his right shoulder, falling to Portugal’s Gastao Elias, 7-6(4), 7-6(3), at the Rio Olympics. That same year, he would withdraw from both Winston-Salem and the US Open with a pectoral strain. He missed 18 weeks in 2017 with an abdominal injury.
There were some good days, too, like the time he stunned Roger Federer at the Miami Open in 2018 — at No. 175 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, the lowest-ranked player to beat a World No. 1 in a decade-and-a-half. It was a moment for all to celebrate. But later that year, his body would betray him again. He suffered a left ankle injury at an ATP Challenger in Mexico and withdrew from Istanbul qualifying due to a knee injury.
He would play only six matches between 2019 and 2020, his right shoulder repeatedly letting him down. Things got so bad that Kokkinakis says he considered retiring from the sport altogether. But an inner voice told him to keep pushing.
“It’s definitely good to just persist,” said Kokkinakis. “There’s definitely been ups and downs, for sure. It’s been very, very challenging the last few years. It always is. It’s a massive, massive journey. And I know my team and family know exactly what I go through. It’s been really hard. But look on the moments where I’ve had success and the feelings I got from being on court and having good wins. I use that to fuel me for as long as I can. I know I can’t do this forever. So even if I’m just struggling at certain moments, I kind of hang on those moments to kind of push me through.”
The way Kokkinakis figures it, 90 per cent of the fans in the Court 3 stands for his win over Kwon were from his camp.
“I’m so appreciative of that,” he said. “Just playing with that energy and that crowd and being able to win — so much work behind the scenes, so much pain. [It’s] just a massive relief.”
It doesn’t get any easier from here for Kokkinakis, whose self-described “blue-collar” approach has seen him fend for himself when it comes to his on-court apparel. (“It’s tough out here, man. It’s not what it used to be!”) For his efforts, he’s earned a shot at fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, with whom he shares Greek roots.
“It’s going to be exciting,” said Kokkinakis. “[He’s] a phenomenal player, one of the favourites for this tournament. It’s going to be fun. I just can’t wait to get out there. I’m not sure what court we’ll play on, but I’m sure it will be a pretty big one. I’m hoping there’s a decent crowd that will get rowdy, have some Greek fans, Aussie fans. Hopefully, it’s pretty loose.”
It will be his first encounter with Tsitsipas, who reached the Australian Open semi-finals in 2019, defeating then-third-ranked Federer along the way. But don’t look for Kokkinakis to be intimidated by the moment; he’s just happy to be healthy and competing again on the biggest stages in the sport.
“I can’t wait to get out there and have another crack.”