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.