“At the start I was a little bit shocked because there was [Lleyton] Hewitt there, [Bernard] Tomic there, [Pat] Rafter and Tony Roche.”Thanasi Kokkinakis
Committing to any long-term career plans when you’re 16 years old is a tough ask but for Thanasi Kokkinakis, a focus on his professional development actually came even earlier than that. Earlier this year, the South Australian teenager explained that after taking up the game at age eight, he eventually chose tennis over basketball at just 11-years-old.
“I kind of copied my brother [Pan] a bit. I was playing basketball as he was doing and started to come out to his lessons once a week just to watch,” Kokkinakis told Australian Tennis Magazine. “I just had more and more hits. I had to make the choice about which I would choose. At about 11, I chose tennis.”
Five years on, Kokkinakis has no reason to regret that decision, with tennis commitments already taking him all over the world, including many parts of Asia, Europe and the United States. This week he’s in Barcelona, Spain, as a member of the Australian team contesting the Junior Davis cup world finals.
There have been some significant milestones along the way. Earlier this year, Kokkinakis was selected as Orange Boy in the Australian Davis Cup team that met South Korea in a zonal tie in Brisbane. It was a daunting but ultimately valuable experience for the talented teenager, who admitted it took time to adjust to the professionalism and standard of players he’d one day like to emulate.
“It was good, a great experience. At the start I was a little bit shocked because there was [Lleyton] Hewitt there, [Bernard] Tomic there, [Pat] Rafter and Tony Roche,” Kokkinakis related. “I hit pretty average on the first day. I felt a bit rushed. But the next day I got a bit of a warm-up and got to hit more with the boys … from there I hit more and more and felt more comfortable.”
Already known as one of the top Australian players in his age group, Kokkinakis gained important advice from the accomplished company he kept in Brisbane. Volleying tips were a focus for Rafter and Roche, while Hewitt helped with ground strokes and Rafter added extra tips on his serve. “They all had a say, which was good. I definitely listened,” Kokinakkis said.
The experience showed when Kokkinakis starred in the junior Davis Cup Asia-Oceania qualifying event in Bendigo earlier this year, winning every match he contested – which, in a busy week, included five singles matches and four doubles – to help Australia qualify for this week’s world junior final.
Harry Bourchier and Blake Mott are the other members of the Australian junior Davis Cup team, while Naiktha Bains, Isabelle Wallace and Zoe Hives are representing Australian in the junior Fed Cup team.
Kokkinakis, described by team captain Mark Woodforde as “a beautiful clean hitter of the ball”, is delighted by the opportunity to compete in this year’s final. He also helped Australia progress to the same stage in 2011 only to be sidelined with a stress fracture in his back. “I’d been growing a lot so it was a little bit of overuse,” he explained. “Just with hitting a lot, it kind of caught up with me.”
Unable to do any impact work, Kokkinakis’ training activities in that period were limited to swimming, stationary cycling and some Pilates. Four months of no hitting at all reminded the teenager how much tennis means to him. “The annoying thing was trying to play a little bit and then you started feeling it so you had to take a step back. It was really tough,” he said.
Having overcome that frustration with his successful return to the courts this year, Kokkinakis is focused on steady progress in the years ahead. In the shorter term, he hopes to achieve an ATP ranking of around 700 by year’s end, which would provide an important stepping stone to Kokkinakis’ ultimate ambition of becoming world No.1 and representing Australia in senior Davis Cup.
It’s a grand plan for a 16-year-old but as a quarterfinalist at the recent Pro Tour event in Alice Springs, he’s already sitting at world No.861. Having worked at it for years, you can’t help thinking that the fiercely focused Kokkinakis has the dedication to achieve his dream.