Young Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis is hoping to make a statement with his tennis over the next few months, and US Open qualifying this week could prove to be the springboard he needs.
After dropping out of the top-200 for failing to defend his runner-up points in Los Cabos last month – falling to Taylor Fritz 7-6, 7-6 in his opening match – Kokkinakis won his first Challenger title since 2015 by triumphing in Aptos.
On Tuesday in New York, the 22-year-old began his US Open qualifying campaign with a 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 success in an all-Aussie clash against Bernard Tomic to set up a second round against Germany’s Yannick Maden.
A nervy start saw Kokkinakis hit three double faults, which cost him the first set, but he then went on a nine-game winning streak as Tomic looked to have checked out.
Tomic pushed back though as Kokkinakis got tight serving at 4-2 in the decider but he eventually held after a marathon game and closed out the win shortly after.
“I was kind of expecting something strange, playing Bernie, it’s obviously weird playing a friend, and someone that plays like him,” Kokkinakis told Sport360.
“I came out very average, he kind of takes the energy out of matches so it’s tough to keep your energy up. He’s a tricky player, he knows how to play the game. The three double faults didn’t help in my first service game and that kind of didn’t really get me going. Towards the end of the first set, I started to find a little bit of rhythm. Big hold first game of the second set and then I started to find it.”
Playing under the watchful eyes of his coach Todd Langman, his fitness trainer Vasek Jursik, and Patrick Mouratoglou – the coach of Serena Williams and founder of the academy where Kokkinakis often trains – the South Australian could tell Tomic was fading after the first set but insists it was still tricky to stay focused.
“A lot of the times, he makes it a little more obvious than other people, but a lot of the times players do that when you get on top of them,” Kokkinakis said of Tomic when asked if he sensed his opponent had checked out.
“Maybe they’re not doing it as obviously as he does, but sometimes they go away and you just sense that as a player. But sometimes that makes you more nervous because you’re like, ‘This guy is going away, I just have to put the ball in’ but sometimes you get a bit tight and all of a sudden they get back in the match. It’s tough but I’m happy to get through.”
Langman was pleased with his charge’s performance and admits they were all expecting an unusual encounter with Tomic.
“The match was obviously going to be ugly, it was going to be a little bit scrappy and we kind of knew that Bernard may not be physically where he needed to be,” said Langman.
“Thanasi did what he had to do, made the tough balls and kept Bernie playing. Just a tricky match. It was important for Thanasi to stay composed and try and keep his level and maintain his concentration and after the first service game, he did a pretty good job.”
Plagued by a string of career-threatening injuries over the past several years, Kokkinakis is managing his body the best way he can as he looks to re-enter the top-100 and rise to the level many believe he possesses within.
A win over Roger Federer in Miami earlier this year – one of just five losses the Swiss has conceded this season – reminded the world of Kokkinakis’ potential, and he’s looking to build on his recent Challenger success moving forward.
“The Challenger title was very important. I’m not too worried about points right now, but especially losing 150 coming off in Cabo. I had a tight match there, I had set points in both sets against Taylor [Fritz]. I knew I wasn’t too far off, with a little more training, a little more focus I’d find it,” said Kokkinakis.
“I started to really play well in the semi-finals and final, and that was really important. It was really important. [Winning] Singles and doubles, I’m going to play a lot more doubles now, as long as my body lets me.
“It’s just important to show what I’m capable of again and get through matches back-to-back. Unfortunately I had to pull out in Vancouver, I strained my side, but I’m happy I pulled out because if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have been able to play here.”
Langman gives a lot of credit to Jursik, who has been helping the injury-prone Kokkinakis stay as healthy as possible.
“The Challenger was big, because he obviously hadn’t won one in a while. His fitness trainer has done a really good job,” said the Aussie coach.
“In Cabo the result wasn’t there but Vasek was getting him down on the sand every morning and working hard and surprise, surprise he ends up winning a title the following week.
“He’s had body issues for a while, but Patrick Mouratoglou has given us a trainer, Vasek, he’s doing a great job. Trying to minimise the risk of anything silly happening and again, the things that we can control, we’re going to control. At the moment we’re doing a pretty good job managing his body.”
Meanwhile, Tunisian Ons Jabeur enjoyed a strong start to her qualifying campaign in Queens, defeating Great Britain’s Katy Dunne 6-2, 6-1 in 49 minutes to set up a second round against American Kristie Ahn.
Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat was unable to convert any of his seven break point opportunities in a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Maden.
Other US Open qualifying winners on Tuesday include Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, Germany’s Mona Barthel, and Ukrainian teen Marta Kostyuk.