Newks 15: Kokkinakis climbs to new heights
In the lead up to next week's Newcombe Medal, we review the impressive 2015 seasons of our six finalists. Today we feature breakthrough star Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Armed with a powerful serve, lashing forehand and increasing physical presence, Thanasi Kokkinakis truly arrived on the men’s tour in 2015.
Add to those elements a fearsome mental strength, and it becomes clear that tennis has another bright young star.
The Australian’s achievements in the past 11 months have earned him a Newcombe Medal finalist nomination; the prestigious medal is awarded to the nation’s most outstanding player and ambassador for the sport.
Reflecting on his season’s highlights, Kokkinakis said: “Obviously that round one match at the Australian Open, beating Gulbis, who was the 11th seed then, that was huge for me in front of that crazy atmosphere.
“And then to back that up in Davis Cup winning my first live rubber, being down two sets to love in Czech Republic in a pretty hostile environment.
“Also responding then by making the fourth round at Indian Wells, that was pretty huge as well.
“And obviously my best Grand Slam result, coming back and beating Bernie (Tomic) actually and making third round of the French (Open) and playing (Novak) Djokovic.”
All of those results came in a stellar first half of season 2015, in which the South Australian shaved his ranking from No.149 to No.69 and went a sparkling 29-10 through the end of Roland Garros.
What’s more, it was the manner in which those victories were achieved – he showed a remarkable ability to rebound from deficits and grit out epic victories.
His four-hour, five-set thriller against Gulbis saw him save an astonishing four match points. It was a similar story against Lukas Rosol in the Czech Davis Cup tie – Kokkinakis trailed by two sets to love and a service break in the third, but even as Rosol served for a straight-sets win, the teenager came back to win in five.
His run to the fourth round at Indian Wells – his best-ever Masters result – was characterised by a succession of three-set victories over higher-ranked opponents, while in Paris against Tomic, Kokkiankis recovered from a 2-5 deficit and three match points in the fifth set to score a famous victory.
Like against Gulbis, the scoreline read 8-6 in the fifth.
“I pride myself on fighting, I’ve shown I can do it [before]… I’ve shown that when my back’s against the wall I usually can find a way to get it done.”
Then there was another less celebrated yet similarly impressive achievement; Kokkinakis built a 16-2 record in ATP qualifying matches, winning through the qualifying rounds at six tour-level events and building a healthy level of form and confidence as a result.
In a quieter second half of the season, Kokkinakis nonetheless won three straight matches to reach the second round at the Cincinnati Masters as a qualifier and had world No.12 Richard Gasquet on the ropes at the US Open before succumbing to cramps and having to retire in the fifth set.
“Just a little bit of maturity,” Kokkinakis said when asked to explain his surge in 2015.
“I guess just developing physically and mentally and kind of getting stronger and knowing what being a professional is all about really.
“I’ve still got a big step to make but I think I made a good one this year. Had a few good wins and a couple of good runs in big tournaments, so I’m just going to look to build on that and just keep working on stuff with my coaching team.”
Winning the Newcombe Medal would cap the season in perfect style.
“Pretty excited,” he said. “It’s obviously an honour to be nominated for the big medal.
“I won the junior award last year so it’s a good transition obviously I’ve made, I’m in some good company so it should be a great night.”
The Newcombe Medal, Australian Tennis Awards will be held at Melbourne’s Crown Palladium on Monday 23 November. Watch the live stream of the event on Tennis Australia’s YouTube channel.