Thanasi Kokkinakis is smiling a lot more these days and he is the most content he has been with life for a very long time; the soon to be 26-year-old has a new lease on life. It is rare for a professional tennis player who had all the promise and potential in the world to have gone through what he did with injuries and surgeries, and still want to keep persevering one more time, one more time.
Last January in his hometown of Adelaide all the hard work, all the comebacks, all the rehab was rewarded when he won his very first career title. The tears streamed down his face as he looked around the centre court at Memorial Drive and soaked in the applause and marvelled at the standing ovation.
This is what it was all about for him; something he had never tasted before but many, including himself, expected him to when he was advancing through the junior ranks. Adelaide in January hosted back-to-back tournaments leading into the Australian Open. Covid had disrupted the normal schedule, so this was one schedule to get players matches.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about but Adelaide for me - I was stoked with the semi-final win (first event), and I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, but I was tossing up whether to play that following week because I wanted to be fresh for the Australian Open,” Kokkinakis said. “But I saw another opportunity to play another tour event and I knew how few and far between the tour events had been for me the last few years
“So, I thought any opportunity specially to play at home was good, it turned out to be the best decision of my life. That is a week I’ll never forget … I won my first tour title and did it in my home city. The best week of my career hands down.”
It has taken so much hard work for Kokkinakis to be where he is. He came on the tour as an incredibly promising young player. His contemporaries in juniors were the likes of Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, his “bro” and best mate. He was getting the results but then his lanky body was starting to break down.
It was injury after injury. There were the surgeries and the rehab. He would spend months off the tour, and one could be forgiven for thinking he was auditioning for a television hospital drama. For three, four, five years just when he should have been establishing himself, his tennis was being sacrificed. Now it wasn’t just the physical side of things suffering but it was also the mental aspect and in any professional sport that is equally crucial, if at times not more so.
“It definitely took a toll on me, a lot of doubts, a lot of thinking am I gonna get back to this point, is it worth it,” Kokkinakis said. “A lot of negative thoughts as well but there was some positive ones and they kept me going. I had to try and look back at some good memories I had when I was healthy and say, ‘hang on if I’m healthy hopefully my body goes to plan and this is potentially what I could do’, but still there were no guarantees.
“I didn’t know how my body was going to respond and it took a lot of hard work and a lot of years of getting back and being focused to try and get to a point where I could still compete professionally; but definitely there were many times I was legitimately thinking about stopping.”
He clearly remembers a conversation in 2016 after shoulder surgery. He played one match, it happened to be at the Rio Olympics, and he played “pretty much without a serve and a shoulder” but thought he would give things one last go. During the 2017 Australian summer he and Jordan Thompson won the Brisbane doubles, but injury hit again and there was no Australian Open for him. He tried to return at Lyon before Roland Garros, and it was an abysmal outcome and he said he was “really off the pace”.
“I felt like a fish out of water on court and I told my coach I didn’t think this was for me anymore. I don’t really have it, my body was not feeling great, I’m feeling like an absolute shell of myself as a player,” he said, “but I had a protected ranking and thought at that point I’ll play out these grand slams. Honestly, pick up the money and if I feel like I’m starting to enjoy my tennis and playing better tennis I’ll give it a crack. If not, that’s probably it for me.
“Fortunately, I had a good match with (Kei) Nishikori at the French Open and that gave me some belief and another good match with (Juan Martin) Del Potro at Wimbledon, and I thought hang on ‘I’m challenging these guys with barely any tennis so what’s going to happen when I do start playing’. I ended up making the final in Cabo and that kind of kickstarted me to keep going.”
Financially he was also very concerned. He was paying a decent amount of money to a physio and fitness trainer which strained the reserves because he was not making money due to the fact he was not able to play. What helped him somewhat was having been such a highly sought-after junior he had some contracts from then that helped with the dollars but many, many times his ledger was highlighted by red ink.
Still there was something in Thanasi Kokkinakis that allowed him to maintain ultimate belief in himself and with his family behind his dream, he kept on trying. All the time away made him mature and, in a way, it was an education and he says it has made him a better person.
He could be forgiven for thinking “why me?” but he never really considered it. He was not unique with injuries, but he kept thinking let’s see what’s next and how to go about it despite not being happy or in a good position.
“At the end of the day, I told myself I can’t do this forever, but I’ll see how I go for the next few years. If it’s looking promising, I’ll give it a crack, if not I maybe find something else,” Kokkinakis said.
January 2022 has shown he will be around for a while more. He has had a second, third, fourth chance to do what he loves more than anything else and one thing is for sure is that smile, and mischievous attitude is back. Nick Kyrgios said that. His peers like having him around and he remains one of the funniest and quick-witted guys in tennis with an infectious laugh.
Asked what he would like to achieve, Thanasi Kokkinakis said: “Honestly? I’ve achieved it.” One thing is for sure, he doesn’t want to have any regrets in the long-term.
“I wanted to win a title and to do it at home is pretty nuts. Obviously, I’d love to make a good run at a grand slam, that would be pretty sick too. I won a doubles grand slam; I’ve played my first Davis Cup tie in seven years and won the deciding rubber,” Kokkinakis said with a hint of emotion. “It’s been pretty f@&king nuts at the start of the year. To be honest Craig I’ve achieved a lot of what I wanted to do.
“I wanted to be in the top 100 before the end of the year, that was my goal coming into this year; I did that in two weeks in Adelaide. I’m really happy. I don’t feel I’m playing with house money, but I feel like I’m more content with myself. I feel like I’m comfortable. I feel like I don’t have to prove as much to anyone anymore. I’ve come from not much to back and back, over and over again so I’m pretty happy. I’m just going to see how well I can do and see what happens.”
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