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No summer for Thanasi Kokkinakis, but much more still to come

Thanasi Kokkinakis. Photo: Streeter LeckaWhen Thanasi Kokkinakis spoke recently of the “obstacles” he had to negotiate in his breakthrough top-100 season, he meant the pre-Wimbledon death of his grandmother, an illness that caused him to drop five kilograms in the same difficult grand slam lead-up, and his unwitting and unwelcome role in the Kyrgios-Wawrinka-Vekic sledge controversy in August.

The upsides, though, were also significant, starting with his first win over a top-25 player (Julien Benneteau) to open the year, and then a dramatic five-set upset of world No.11 Ernests Gulbis at the Australian Open, before several strong northern hemisphere qualifying efforts, a last-16 appearance at Indian Wells, and a memorable Davis Cup comeback in his first live rubber, at the expense of Czech Lukas Rosol in Ostrava in March.

Kokkinakis almost halved his ranking to 80th after peaking at 69th in 2015, joining Croatian Borna Coric and South Korean Hyeon Chung as the youngest ATP trio in double-figures. With a new coach, Ben Mathias, having replaced the long-serving Todd Langman, Kokkinakis was due to resume at next week’s Brisbane International with the top 50 in his sights, but will instead sit out the summer and several months beyond after shoulder surgery that has come at a horrible time.

“For now I will focus on doing everything I can to recover and get back on the court as quickly as possible,” he said via social media on Christmas Eve. “I believe I can come back better and stronger.”

However “devastating”, to use his own word, there is clearly still much ahead for a 19-year-old who seems older and more seasoned, his 196-centimetre frame having loomed large on the Australian tennis horizon since he reached two grand slam junior finals, and – with his friend Nick Kyrgios – generated such immense hope that there would be life after Lleyton Hewitt.

Indeed, there was a time when Kokkinakis and Kyrgios were habitually bracketed together as the so-called Special Ks, before Kyrgios’ behaviour was clearly not quite so marvellous at all. Kokkinakis, in contrast, was praised for his mature handling of a difficult situation at the Montreal Masters, but admits there were some minor personal consequences, nevertheless.

“It didn’t really affect my game; it affected me a little bit mentally as far as tired goes, because I didn’t get a lot of sleep those nights because my phone was going crazy and everyone was kind-of wanting to know what went on,” he admits of the “Thanasi banged your girlfriend” incident. “But I put that aside and I actually had a pretty good week the next week in Cincinnati. So it affected me a little bit, but it was all right; it was just a little thing I had to deal with.”

Oddly, though, the outrage did not necessarily serve to publicly distinguish the pair as villain versus victim, as it might have done. Instead, the fact that the opposite was true was confirmed by a follow-up incident involving combustible American Ryan Harrison, who said during a qualifying match in Cincinnati that “Wawrinka should’ve decked Kyrgios, and I should deck that kid”, telling the chair umpire that “you have got to get these kids under control or they’re gonna get hurt”. Kokkinakis’ protest that he had done nothing disrespectful got a little lost amid the threats and noise.

“Sometimes people just read a headline and they don’t read the actual article or what went down, because then I got in a bit of a tussle with Ryan Harrison the next week, who lumped us together,” Kokkinakis recalls. “I think it almost got worse, because from [Montreal] everyone thought ‘oh maybe they are the same’, but I’m my own person, me and Nick get along, I’m still good mates with him, but we’re different people, and we do things pretty differently.

“Nick does some stuff on court, but it’s just the person he is, and we’re just different people, so I’m not going to try and be like him and he’s not going to try and be like me. I mean, they can try and tone him down a little bit, but he is who he is, and I’m my own guy, I’m a bit more relaxed and chilled out, so that’s just the way it is.”

Are they as tight as they were? “Yeah, not a whole lot’s changed.”

Nor, other than a dodgy shoulder, it would seem, has Kokkinakis, who is smart, assured, articulate. Popular among his peers, but an individual. Ambitious, but having remained loyal to Langman, his coach since the age of seven, until it became clear that another voice was needed to take him to the next level. The teenager later posted his thanks on Facebook “for all the unbelievable help and support”, acknowledging that he would not be playing tennis if not for Langman. “After 12 years I thought a change was in order,” he added, flagging continued input from Davis Cup duo Lleyton Hewitt and Jason Stoltenberg.

Langman, while disappointed, accepted the decision with good grace. “Obviously we’re still very, very good friends. We’ve grown up together; it’s been like a brother relationship, so I want nothing but the best for him and I said to him I’m only a phone call away if he ever needs it,” says Langman, who predicts his former pupil will win multiple majors.

“I’ve always thought that, and obviously Davis Cup is a huge part as well. We’ve always talked about winning that, and an Olympic Games gold medal would go down a treat at some point … He’s not perfect but he’s a good kid. He’s working hard and he’ll get what he deserves.”

Fitness-wise, with cramps having been an issue as recently as his US Open retirement against Richard Gasquet, he hired Port Adelaide strength coach and performance nutritionist Andrew Rondinelli, and noted early on the benefits of a more structured and professional approach. Kokkinakis had only a brief post-season break, typically. “I’m not the type of person who can kind of just sit there and wait for time to blow by. If I’m resting I’m in the gym because I’m bored, pretty much.”

Early on, his attitude and ability caught the eye of dual grand champion Andy Murray, who has been a help and mentor ever since. “Out of the big guys, I’d say I’m closest to Murray. He kind of reached out to me first and I was obviously stoked with that,” said Kokkinakis of the world No.2. “He gave me his number and just said ‘anything that you need, with regards to coaches, trainers, anything like that’ he was willing to give advice or help, so he’s been great for me.”

Why Kokkinakis, does he think? “I have no idea?” the South Australian laughs. “We just get along, and I think he just likes my personality. I don’t know. I guess you’ve got to ask him that.”

Another experienced pal is former Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis, the Cypriot with whom Kokkinakis – the son of Greek immigrants – often dines, Mediterranean-style, when on the road. Indeed, Kokkinakis is a popular figure in his parents’ homeland, admitting it was “pretty crazy” during a visit to Athens in September for a Greek TV special that involved an exhibition match against local player Stefan Tsitsipas.

There were no street mobbings in the quiet area near his hotel, but clubbing was something else. “I never knew I had so many cousins,” Kokkinakis laughs. “So many people came up and I’m their third, fourth cousin, and I’m ‘ok, ok, sorry’, but it was pretty fun to see.” He admits he was asked several times about switching nationalities, a prospect the Adelaide-born-and-raised youngster is happy to rule out.

Which will no doubt come as a relief to the local fans who have seen Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic fall foul of various authorities but who, game-wise, remain two of the three brightest prospects in the Australian game. Kokkinakis, the other, is a slightly different breed of player and person, managing his life and career in his own sensible way.

Yet, having been sidelined for a lengthy stint as a junior with stress fractures in his back, this is another unfortunate setback at a very inconvenient time. Another obstacle to add to a lengthening list, in fact. In the season for giving, Australian tennis will be hoping for a successful and robust return. Sponsored: Australian Open tickets available from just $75 at Queen of Tickets

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