UPON COMPLETING A thrilling five-set victory over Sebastian Ofner at the Australian Open last night, Thanasi Kokkinakis did something most players usually reserve for victory in the final of a Grand Slam tournament: he turned to the crowd and let out a clenched fist, guttural roar.
It was perhaps a little OTT for a first-round victory, but if you’ve followed Kokkinakis’ career over the last decade, you could probably forgive the 27-year-old for the histrionics.
Back in the mid-2010s, Kokkinakis was seen as the more subdued but equally talented stablemate to Nick Kyrgios. The pair, who are close friends and went on to form a successful doubles’ duo that reached its apex with victory at the 2022 Australian Open, were regarded, along with Bernard Tomic, as the future of Australian tennis. So, what went wrong?
In the case of Tomic and Kyrgios, expectations, fame, infamy and off-field incidents have served to derail their promising careers. Kokkinakis’ fate, though, was influenced by a more prosaic but equally damaging demon: injury.
After a promising start to his career that saw him finish 2015 with an ATP ranking of 80, the South Australian’s woes began with a shoulder injury that saw him sit out most of the 2016 season. He would return the next year and in 2018 had the biggest victory of his career over Roger Federer at the Miami Open, only to lose in the next round.
Injuries struck again in 2019 and from there Kokkinakis saw his stock plummet as he divided his time between the physio’s table and the court, gaining tournament wildcards here and there and even claiming the odd scalp of a highly-ranked player, only for his body to let him down again just when it looked like he was on his way to fulfilling his prodigious talent.
At the 2019 US Open he took out Ilya Ivashka in four sets, setting up a second-round meeting with second seed Rafael Nadal. But moments before the match he was forced to withdraw due to another shoulder injury. If you believe in curses, Kokkinakis offered proof.
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While his story is sad it’s not uncommon. In fact, it may even be the norm in the sporting world these days. Sports are increasingly becoming theatres of attrition and sports physios and psychologists have probably never enjoyed a more fruitful time as they attempt to restore their clients’ bodies and mental equilibriums. Kokkinakis’ buddy, the preposterously talented Kyrgios, has seen his career derailed by his own body of late; he’s spending this Australian Open behind the mic on his podcast. In the NBA, meanwhile, Ben Simmons’ blazing start to his career in Philadelphia now seems like it belonged to another player, as continued back complaints see him consigned to the bench in drippy clothes, the season passing him by.
For fans who invest in these rollercoaster rides, frustration is inevitable. With each comeback our faith in the player’s ability to reward us diminishes and cynicism grows. You can find yourself unfairly regarding the player with contempt, particularly if his injuries are accompanied by perceived public arrogance, aloofness and swaggy Insta grids. But Insta, as we’ve been told many times, is a curated representation of someone’s life. We know nothing of what’s really going on behind the scenes, the work that goes into rehabbing an injury, or the hours on the physio’s table. When the player manages to flip the script on his supposed fate and then screams in triumph at a delirious crowd, perhaps we get a glimpse.
But as Kokkinakis continues his next tantalising comeback, it’s tough to get your hopes up too high. Next round he plays 13th seed Grigor Dimitrov, where in all likelihood his tournament will come to an end. But there’s a chance it won’t. As he told reporters after last night’s marathon victory, “I back myself … I’ve beaten high-ranked players before . . . It’s about coming out on the day and playing my best tennis”. Given his injury history, that would be a victory in itself.