Interview: Kokkinakis opens up about 'lifetime of injuries' and hopes of an imminent return to tennis

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Back soon to a court near you: Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Braving the Dubai desert heat on the remote courts of Tennis 360 at Meydan, Thanasi Kokkinakis was celebrating his 21st birthday by practicing with Roger Federer last week.

The young Australian, who rose to prominence two years ago when he peaked at No69 in the world as a teenager mid-2015, has endured a nightmare 18 months where he had shoulder surgery, battled abdominal and groin injuries, and more recently dealt with a torn external oblique and a minor elbow issue.

It’s been a brutal journey towards recovery – one that is not over yet, but Kokkinakis, who has played just one singles match since October 2015, sounds the most positive he’s been in a long time.

“I’m in the best place I’ve been in a while physically. I haven’t obviously played five sets but I’m in the best place to try and play five sets,” Kokkinakis told Sport360 following a practice session with Federer in Dubai.

“I’m hoping this has been a bit of a blessing, having all those injuries, because I’ve started to know my body better and I started to know what I needed to do to take care of it. But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it hasn’t been pleasant that’s for sure.”

Professional sport and injuries go hand in hand but what Kokkinakis has been through is no ordinary tale.

In 2013, he reached two grand slam junior finals in Australia and the US Open, and won the boys’ doubles title, alongside Nick Kyrgios, at Wimbledon. But those achievements were interrupted by a stress fracture in his back that sidelined him for six months.

Early 2015, he upset the then 13th-ranked Ernests Gulbis to reach the second round of the Australian Open before reaching the fourth round at Indian Wells. He won his first Challenger title in Bordeaux that year in May, then went on to make the third round at Roland Garros.

With Nick Kyrgios making waves the previous season with his heroic run to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, and Bernard Tomic accomplishing the same feat as an 18-year-old in 2011, Kokkinakis became part of a young Aussie trio the tennis world was excited about but his body had other thoughts.

He had shoulder surgery for a problematic AC joint end of 2015 which sidelined him for most of 2016. He played one singles match at the Rio Olympics in August then tore a pectoral muscle during training in Florida. He started running a lot while out of action, which saw him sustain a groin injury common with footballers – osteitis pubis.

That kept him out for a few more months but he made a brief return in Brisbane last January where he won the doubles title alongside Jordan Thompson. But after hitting a serve in the final game there, he tore his external oblique, which is an injury he is still not fully recovered from. A small elbow problem also followed.

“I still don’t know if my shoulder can go five sets – I have all those things, it feels like almost a lifetime of injuries,” he said.

“I’ve had a lot of false starts, that’s been the toughest part. I feel like I’ve been kind of a constant yellow light the last couple of years. Whether it’s my surgeon who told me I’d be ready in four months, and then physio was like another couple of months, and then every time I looked like I was about to start, something else would get injured.”

Kokkinakis is cautious about making plans. He plans on returning to the tour this clay season, but feels Madrid – which starts on Monday – may be a little too ambitious for him. He sounds optimistic about playing Roland Garros, where he would play with a protected ranking of 81, but wants to get himself in the best shape possible to survive five sets against any player.

During his time away from the game, Kokkinakis had to fight his own demons. He said he wouldn’t let himself go out because he “didn’t deserve it” and would mainly just sit at home and play video games “I’ve played a lot online, I’m turning into a bit of a nerd,” he jokes. He also spent lots of time watching the other two sports he loves – NBA and UFC.

“You go through phases for sure but then you kind of realise, you hit certain barriers which kind of drops your confidence a little bit but then you have some days when you’re like ‘okay, that’s good, that’s what I need’. That helps,” he said.

“I need that sort of goal, like maybe start hitting forehands again, then I started hitting backhands again, then I started hitting volleys and smashes, and then serves. So you go through stages.

“I’m not sure but there were a few times where for sure I was depressed. I was pretty down. Because that’s what you’ve been brought up doing, all this travelling away from home, I was at school, but I was still travelling and did my first overseas trip when I was 12, with a bunch of mates and playing tennis.

“So it’s pretty much what I know, and to have that taken away when it’s your job, pretty much, is weird.”

Staying away from the competition has also had its financial drawbacks. While it is far from being Kokkinakis’ main concern, his hiatus meant that he was missing out on both prize money and sponsorship bonuses.

“I haven’t lost any sponsors yet, thankfully, but again there are bonuses and ranking guidelines which obviously I’m not making currently,” said the Aussie, who is unranked at the moment.

“So I have lost a bit but again if you try and think of that you’re just driving yourself off the wall. Luckily I did okay, I showed promise young so it was good and my sponsors stuck by me which is good and hopefully I can repay them by playing some good tennis.”

Kokkinakis, who has reunited with his old coach Todd Langman, pays lots of credit to his support system – his team and his family. Practicing with Federer in Dubai has also helped, especially that the Swiss spent six months recovering from injury end of last season.

“I was trying to get as much information as I could from him,” said Kokkinakis of Federer.

“I’m only 21 now, and he’s 35 but I feel like I’ve still got to kind of manage my body the way that he does to be honest, because I can’t put too much load on it, because I don’t know what my body can take at the moment.

“So I’m just trying to be smart about the physical stuff I do off the court and on the court and try to build up slowly again. Going through the certain stages of how many sets you need to play and how good you have to feel off court before you can even consider playing a match, let alone a best out of five. Because I’ve got to treat it as if I’m playing one of the biggest grinders out on tour, like a Murray, or a Djokovic, or the top guys for a possible five sets on clay. Because I don’t want to go out there being like ‘I don’t know about my shoulder, I don’t know how I’ll feel physically’.”

This isn’t the first time Kokkinakis has spent time training with Federer here in the UAE. He had a stint with the Swiss at the end of 2014 and he still marvels at his diligence in his practice sessions.

“What sticks out for me is that he’s always working on his game, he’s always working on different things where he can improve,” Kokkinakis added. “Trying shots where maybe a standard tennis player wouldn’t really consider as a possibility and I think that’s what has put him that level above for so long and that’s what’s kept him able to play for so long.”

Kokkinakis has kept tabs on tennis from time to time and admits he was “surprised” that Federer managed to win the Australian Open in January, which was his first official tournament back from injury.

Perhaps one of the toughest things to deal with was watching his peers, from his generation, pass him by and do so well on tour in his absence.

“You go through phases for sure. Obviously I played Nick (Kyrgios) in that (Aus Open) junior final and I’ve missed a ridiculous amount of time since then and I felt like we were pretty neck and neck since then obviously he’s gone and played some great tennis.

“I feel like I can get myself back to that point for sure, but again it’s a different pathway. A lot of the guys I was with have taken their opportunity and ran with it, like Alex (Zverev), Lucas (Pouille) is doing well now and these are all guys I came up with, playing a lot of the same tournaments and doing just as well as they were.

“I guess that’s been the frustrating part but also the motivating part, saying like ‘okay when I get back, when I get healthy, I’ll stay the course and I can get up there’.”

Even though he’s unranked at the moment, Kokkinakis belongs with the likes of Zverev as stars of the ATP’s NextGen (players aged 21 and under). The tour created an end-of-season tournament in Milan for the young crop, which will feature the eight highest ranked amongst them in a format similar to the ATP World Tour Finals. All year long, fans can keep an eye out on the progress they are making on the Race to Milan standings.

“I think Milan is cool, the NextGen thing, it’s interesting for me,” says Kokkinakis. “I think it’s a good thing because obviously the top four guys (Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal), eventually they can’t play forever, even though it seems like they are. So I think a few of the young guys are waiting for them to get going and enjoy their retired lives so they can have more of a crack.

“But I think it’s good but I just think not everyone’s on the same path. So there’s the Finals there, and if I want to make that I’ve got to cover some serious groundwork. But that’s not the goal for me. I’m just going to try and stay healthy, that’s my goal for the rest of my career.

“Because I know what I can play like when I’m standing on the court. So I think it’s good but again, not everyone’s the same. It’s tough to kind of promote everyone the same. Tennis is such an individual sport you’ve got to have your own way, doing everything by yourself a little bit.”

Kokkinakis has a point. Said ‘NextGen’ players are at varying points in their budding careers. Someone like Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev, who is leading the Race to Milan, is in a slightly different league than a player like Chung Hyeon, who is No4 on that list but owns less than half the points the German has.

“I’m included in that group maybe because what I’ve done in the past but I’m a long way off it at the moment, I’m currently unranked. It’s different. And then where do you draw the line? What’s NextGen, what age is NextGen and what’s current Gen? I don’t know, it’s a bit weird, but I guess that’s for the ATP to decide,” added Kokkinakis.

The clay season so far has been dominated by Rafael Nadal, who won Monte Carlo and Barcelona and looks in imperious form ahead of this month’s French Open.

“I don’t know if I’m surprised because he’s so good,” said Kokkinakis of Nadal’s resurgence.

“But it looks like you kind of count these guys out a little bit and they just come back and I think Djokovic is going to do the same thing. Maybe he’s not in as good a form – he’s still ridiculously good, but maybe he’s not in the form he was a couple of years ago but again someone that good it’s hard to keep him down for too long so I think he’ll be back soon as well.”

QUICK HITS WITH KOKKINAKIS

Do you allow yourself to look ahead and set goals?

A dream scenario would be to get through the rest of the year without any major injuries, and the rest of my career. I don’t know how realistic that is, I hope it is. And then from there I’d worry about playing better and having some good results. I know Australia has got a semi-final in Davis Cup coming up so that would be cool. We’ll see what happens.

What got you into UFC?

I started getting really into it probably a couple of years ago I was a casual fan, you know the big names. Obviously McGregor is such a big personality, then I started to really learn about the sport, the ins and outs. It’s pretty crazy with the weight cutting and how disciplined you have to be. It’s a little bit like tennis in a way where only the top guys in the top echelon can really make a good living off it. If you’re like the 200th best MMA fighter no one will have heard of you and that’s sort of in a way what tennis is like.

Have you been in touch with Nick Kyrgios? Do you think he can win a grand slam this year?

I speak to him a little bit. I don’t speak to him as much as we used to but we’re fine, we’re cool. A slam is a tough thing, it’s different to any ATP event, obviously best out of three, it’s less physically taxing on the body and you know slams all the top guys, you see some upsets but that’s when they really key in and really play. Obviously Nick’s shown he can put it together for some 500 events and even Masters, he’s been playing really good tennis. I guess the only thing maybe holding him back a little bit is focus and maybe some fitness, to try and get there. But again when his level there he’s shown he can be a top player. So I guess, I don’t know how much he’s working on it, but I guess those things are the only little questions marks really.

What did you make of Maria Sharapova’s return and all the wildcard drama?

I feel like I would get abused if I say anything. You can’t put it on Twitter from all her fans – I’ve done it before. I praised (Grigor) Dimitrov (Sharapova’s ex-boyfriend) about him going out with (Nicole) Scherzinger and I copped it from Maria Sharapova fans. So I’m trying to stay clear.

I understand from both parts. I don’t know the ins and outs of the doping thing, if you did it maybe I don’t think you should get wildcards but I understand where the French think ‘she’s a massive name, she’s done a lot for the sport’, so of course they want her in the draw.

Do you find yourself more careful about checking the prohibited list and what you take after she failed that test?

A little bit but you know, there’s been a couple of cases before, again you don’t really know what’s going on in their teams. I’m sure people are pushing the boundaries as far as things you can take which are legal and things you aren’t. Everyone’s looking to get an advantage, it’s such a competitive sport. I try to do what I can to be in my physical best shape, au natural I guess, if that’s good enough, it’s good enough, if not, then I’m sure I can get better and fitter.

Do you follow the WTA tour?

Bits and pieces but I don’t really try and follow it too much, not that I don’t like it. But I stick to my basketball and stick to what I know, my competitors I guess. When I come back to the tour I don’t really need to worry about the women’s too much. Obviously I follow some of the Aussie girls and see how they’re doing. I saw the Greek girl is doing well now, Maria Sakkari. She’s nice and it’s good to see some of those girls doing well.

Have you thought about studying while you were injured and out of action?

I finished year 12, which is high school – my mum and dad were pushing me to do a subject at university. I was definitely considering it, I was seeing how the next few weeks would go. But I don’t know, my passion was always tennis, obviously more so than anything. I didn’t want to get distracted from the rehab but it’s kind of good to have your mind go elsewhere a little bit so you’re not just fully thinking about tennis so that’s definitely something I’ll consider for sure.

What would you choose to study if you did?

I don’t know. Maybe physiotherapy so I can work on my own body (laughs). No I’m not sure. Business, economics, maybe something like that, we’ll see.

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Down the Line: Sharapova's back, Nadal rules, Murray flops, Kerber freefalling

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Sharapova lost to Mladenovic in the Stuttgart semis.

Last week in tennis was dominated by one thing and one thing only – the return of Maria Sharapova.

The Russian came back from her doping suspension playing some fine tennis, with an improved serve, and a hunger to prove a point.

She made it all the way to the semi-finals, beating Roberta Vinci, Ekaterina Makarova and Anett Kontaveit before losing a thriller to Kristina Mladenovic – who was one of the most vocal players to hit out at the Russian following the announcement of her failed test.

Sharapova, a two-time Roland Garros champion, is already odds-on favourite to win the French Open, even though she doesn’t even know if she’ll be allowed to play there or not.

The pressure is mounting on the organisers to decide where Sharapova should be given wildcard for the tournament. She fell just one win short of securing a place in the qualifying draw by her ranking and many believe if she does get invited to Roland Garros, it would be for the qualifying rounds.

That sounds like a solution that is a win-win for everyone. For the Sharapova camp, it helps feed her redemption story and how she’s willing to “work her way back” like many, including Andy Murray, suggested she should do.

For the organisers, they’re acknowledging a five-time grand slam winner, but are asking her to earn her place in the draw.  We’ll find out on May 16.

Here’s a look at the other happenings on tour last week…

Thumbs up

Rafael Nadal

Dare we say that vintage Rafael Nadal is back? The Spaniard has been stepping up his form with every passing week and he pulled off a ‘Double Decima’ – winning a 10th trophy in Monte Carlo then claiming a 10th crown in Barcelona, on a court that has been renamed after him.

He beat Dominic Thiem in the Barcelona final, and made it look easy, even though the Austrian was in fine form himself. There’s still action to be played in Madrid and Rome but Nadal is exactly where he wants to be ahead of the French Open.

Laura Siegemund

To those who thought her final showing in Stuttgart last year was a fluke, Siegemund has fired back by going one better and winning the title in her home city on Sunday, defeating Mladenovic in a third-set tiebreak.
Will she back it up at other tournaments, though? It’s her chance to show that she can.

Thumbs down

Andy Murray

Barcelona was meant to be the world No1’s opportunity to get back to winning ways, with a highly-anticipated final against Nadal expected to be the perfect test for him.
Instead, he struggled past Albert Ramos-Vinolas (who beat him in Monte Carlo), then lost to Thiem.
Madrid, with the flying balls and higher altitude, might bring more chances for him to get back on song.

Angelique Kerber

A change of surface has not done any good for the German, who continues to inexplicably freefall.
Granted, she lost to a player who almost won the tournament but still, the Kerber of 2016 is no where to be found. It’s time she hit the panic button.

TALKING POINTS

Early clay season standouts

Beyond Nadal, you’d have to look at David Goffin, Dominic Thiem and Lucas Pouille as non-Big Four players who can make a real impact at the French Open.

Goffin had some magical moments in Monte Carlo, taking out Novak Djokovic and Thiem on his way to the semis. Thiem knocked out Andy Murray in Barcelona en route to the final, while Pouille grabbed his second career title in Budapest on Sunday.

Which one of them has the better chance of going deep in Paris? Possibly Thiem.

Is women’s tennis in trouble?

In the absence of Serena Williams (pregnant and still world No1), Petra Kvitova (recovering from a knife attack) and Victoria Azarenka (on maternity leave), Kerber is flopping, Simona Halep is flip-flopping, and even Karolina Pliskova lost her first round in Prague – her home city – on Monday to Camila Giorgi.

Will the lack of consistency of the top players cause serious damage to the WTA? Or should people just embrace the depth of the field and discover the lesser-known names, who actually have good game? I vote for the latter.

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Debate: Is Nadal the runaway favourite for the French Open?

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On fire: Rafael Nadal.

After winning a 10th Monte Carlo Masters and 10th Barcelona Open within the last two weeks, Reem Abulleil and James Piercy debate whether the Spaniard is the runaway favourite for a 10th Roland Garros.

What side are you on in our debate?

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

Reem Abulleil says YES

Borrowing the words of Roger Federer – what Rafael Nadal has managed to achieve on clay over the past 12 years has been “mind-blowing”.

After the Spaniard picked up a 10th Monte Carlo crown last week Federer told Tennis Channel: “Rafa’s favourite. He’s so good on clay, he’s shown it again with his 10th in Monaco, which is mind-blowing.”

Nadal then added a 10th Barcelona trophy to his resume on Sunday.

In the eight previous times Nadal had won Monte Carlo and Barcelona back-to-back in the same season, he went on to win the French Open as well on six occasions.

The two times he missed were in 2009, when he was carrying a knee problem and was knocked out by Robin Soderling in the fourth round in Paris, and 2016, where he was in good shape but sustained a wrist injury that forced him to withdraw ahead of his third round at Roland Garros.

With the French Open still four weeks away (starts May 28), many would feel it’s too soon to rule Nadal the favourite for a record-extending 10th trophy there, especially with Madrid and Rome still to come for the Mallorcan on the schedule before Paris.

But statistically-speaking, only injuries have ever stopped Nadal from winning Roland Garros after claiming both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

Of course tennis is beyond stats and figures – even though Nadal’s history on the surface is difficult to ignore – and it’s the rest of the competition that can play a factor when it comes to the 30-year-old’s chances in France.
Nadal has been in great form this season – he leads the tour with 29 match wins, has won two titles from five finals reached and is on a 10-match winning streak.

The same cannot be said about most of his main rivals.

Novak Djokovic, the defending champion in Paris, is in somewhat of a slump, Andy Murray had elbow issues and showed more signs of struggle in Barcelona, barely squeezing past Albert Ramos-Vinolas before losing to Dominic Thiem, while 2015 winner Stan Wawrinka continues to be a mystery riddled by inconsistency.

Roger Federer, the 2009 French Open champion, has been the star of the tour this season, but he admitted he won’t be putting in much work on clay – he was in Dubai practicing on hard court up until a few days ago – and isn’t even 100 per cent sure he’s going to play in Paris.

Even if he does, a miraculous run like the one he had in Melbourne would be a tall order considering the surface requires more work from him than others. Not to mention, he hasn’t played at the French Open in two years, and he only played five matches in total on the red dirt in 2016, and won just three of them.

Bring in the Thiems, and Zverevs into the mix and you realise none of these youngsters have done enough yet to make us believe they can string together seven wins in 14 days to win a major.

There is a difference between Nadal’s form on clay this year compared to 2016. There seems to be an extra spring in his step, more vigour to his shots, and much less uncertainty all around.

While the others may choose to peak at the French, Nadal has always been the kind of player who needs to win many matches in a row to gather confidence and find his rhythm.

It’s fair to say he’s done just that!

James Piercy says NO

If the French Open started today it would certainly be difficult to look past Rafael Nadal.

With Andy Murray’s fitness a doubt, uncertainty over Novak Djokovic’s mental fortitude, Roger Federer out of match practice – especially on clay – and other leading marquee contenders such as Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori not really making much of an impact so far on Tour, the ball is firmly in Nadal’s court.

But then time is the key component in assessing it all. Firstly, Murray and Djokovic theoretically have two tournaments each to either work on healing their physical ailments and/or address the creases in their respective games.

It’s not a coincidence the elite players find a way of peaking in time for grand slams; it’s a mixture of a balanced schedule and careful preparation in conditioning, especially when returning from injury.

As Nadal chases records around Europe, they are making sure they will be at optimum level at the end of the month. Murray’s elbow is becoming less of a worry with each passing week, and his run to the semi-finals in Barcelona, while unconvincing at times, was encouraging. He doesn’t boast anywhere near the same prowess as Nadal at the French Open but as beaten finalist last year, after two straight semi-finals, it’s a tournament he’s grown to love.

Out of clay practice: Roger Federer.

Out of clay practice: Roger Federer.

For mere mortals, seven weeks and no competitive tennis would be a one-way ticket to a first round exit but Federer is made of magic dust and his declaration to play at Roland Garros simply means, he knows he can win it.

Wawrinka has too much pedigree in Paris to be discounted while the new school of Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios also represent outside challenges.

While how much wear and tear five clay court tournaments in the space of eight weeks will have on the brittle bones and ageing muscles of the Mallorcan remains to be seen. It caught up with him last year, and feasibly could happen again.

He’s undoubtedly the man to beat at the moment, but there’s a lot of tennis still to be played and plenty of questions still to be answered.

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