Kokkinakis is the dark horse of men’s tennis

Thanasi Kokkinakis is not yet a household name in the tennis world, but is poised to be at the top of the sport by the end of 2022. The once acclaimed junior prodigy, who has been betrayed by his body for most of his professional career, is now back on track reaching his full potential.

Though he fell in the first round of the Australian Open, de Kokk, as he calls himself on Instagram, had won 8 of his first 9 matches in the 2022 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) season. By this time next year, the 25-year-old Australian is likely to be qualified for tournament play, an honor reserved for the top 32 tennis players.

While Kokkinakis is just emerging, Nick Kyrgios has been at the forefront of Australian tennis for years. He defeated the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on his way to international fame, and the crowd-loving Aussie is often the center of attention when he competes. The so-called “bad boy” of tennis is also a recognizable figure outside the tennis world.

Few people know that Kokkinakis and Kyrgios were both considered the golden boys of Australian tennis. Kyrgios defeated Kokkinakis in the first all-Australian final of the 2013 Australian Boys’ Open in singles, and both juniors seemed destined for ATP success. The two flashy stars were junior rivals and remain best friends and doubles partners.

In 2016, Kyrgios lived up to expectations and reached number 13 in the world. At just 18 years old in 2015, Kokkinakis was ranked number 69 in the world. For both players, it seemed that their careers were going down a hill. However, that ranking remains the highest point ever for both Kyrgios and Kokkinakis.

Kyrgios reached a plateau due to his poor work ethic, turbulent attitude and apparent lack of passion for the game. Kokkinakis, on the other hand, trains hard on the field, is level-headed on the pitch and is praised for the respect he shows his opponents.

“I will say I am very impressed with Thanasi,” said Pat Rafter, former Australian World No. 1, in 2015. “I like his attitude. He may not have as much of that raw, gifted talent as a Tomic and Kyrgios, but he is not far away.”

Despite Kokkinakis’ dedication to improving his game, he hasn’t been able to play much tennis in the past five years. The 25-year-old suffers from a nightmarish array of injuries and illnesses – shoulder, chest, groin, knee, elbow, mono, glandular fever, etc. – that have kept him sidelined for the past few ATP seasons.

But when he was actually able to compete, the powerful young Aussie was a dark horse. For example, in 2018, he became the lowest ranked player at number 175 to beat the world number one in 15 years, after beating Roger Federer at the Miami Open.

Kokkinakis has spoken of experiencing depression when he was unable to compete and even considering quitting the sport.

“I would just cry in my room for no reason,” he said. “I would get nervous if I went for a walk if no one was around 100 meters from me.”

Last year, Kokkinakis was on the go, playing mostly lower level challenger tournaments in a difficult and chaotic COVID-19 season. His results earned him a nomination for ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year, and Kokkinakis is eager for more. He knows he can compete for titles in the major leagues. In the second round of the 2021 Australian Open, the wildcard pushed fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas to five sets in an epic showdown.

After the game, Tsitsipas applauded Kokkinakis’ performance.

“He has a huge forehand and a very good serve,” said Tsitsipas. “All the potential is there. I really hope he stays injury free.”

Now completely healthy, more mature from the adversity he’s endured, and hungrier than ever for success, Kokkinakis is in for a breakthrough season – and nothing can stop him. The Aussie got off to a strong start in 2022, capturing his first ATP title in his hometown of Adelaide. With those results, Kokkinakis has jumped to No. 103 in the rankings after starting the year at No. 171.

However, all those hours on the track took their toll on the hopeful Kokkinakis at the Australian Open. The newly crowned ATP champion, who played just one day between tournaments, was noticeably tired and out of tune during his first-round loss to German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann. While the result was disappointing, Kokkinakis should try to build on this momentum.

Kokkinakis has the tools to crack the top 20 and is a player to follow all year round. At 25 years old, he still has a lot of tennis to play, but de Kokk’s grueling journey back to the big stage, infectious optimism and perseverance make it impossible to row against him.

Robbie Werdiger is a sophomore at the College. Cause a racket appears online and in print every other week.

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