Thanasi Kokkinakis: The Real Future Of Australian Tennis

We flashback to the second round of the 2015 US Open. The then 22-year-old Australian Bernard Tomic was taking on his countryman and veteran 34-year-old Lleyton Hewitt in what was his final tournament at Flushing Meadows. After leading two sets to love, the troublesome Tomic found himself in a jam after conceding back-to-back sets to Hewitt to level the match. Tomic won the match, and him finding a way to win signaled a changing of the guard of tennis in Australia.

For all of his career, Hewitt didn’t have many challengers to his throne as the “King” of Australian tennis. Early in his career, Mark Philippoussis was the man to challenge his throne, but he never reached the heights that good ole “Rusty” did. Now with Hewitt retiring at the upcoming Australian Open, three men eye to become the new “King” of Aussie Tennis.

Tomic is the front-runner right now as the “veteran” of the three, but he’s still young at 23 years old. The next two youngsters are part of the “Special K” kids and if they fulfill their promise, would provide a formidable big three for years to come for Tennis Australia.

Nick Kyrgios is the first of the two “Special K” members. He burst onto the scene after pulling out all the flicks and tricks in his upset win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last year. He then followed that up with a quarterfinals appearance at his home Slam Down Under.

However, the man no one is talking about is Thanasi Kokkinakis. His ranking sits about 50 spots below Tomic’s and 40 spots below Kyrgios’. He doesn’t have the results in the Slams that either man have, but what he does have is an all-court game and a cool, mature demeanor that neither his countrymen possess.

This play style and cool, mature demeanor is why he’ll be the champion and leader for Tennis Australia for years to come. Now it’s time to breakdown the games and behaviors of Tomic, Kyrgios, and Kokkinakis and show why the latter will beat out the “Bad Boys of Tennis Australia”.

Playing Styles

Kokkinakis

The 19-year-old possess a staple that plenty of rising stars have, a booming serve and forehand. Last season, he hit 60 percent of first serves and won 74 percent of those points. As the 6’4’’ Aussie continues to mature, he’ll realize that he needs to win more than 80 percent of first serve points in order to take full control of matches.

His forehand has tremendous range and uses that shot to step in and take control of points as he tries to keep them short. He moves nicely for his height but uses more for first-strike tennis rather than to defend. His backhand is average, and his net play is solid when he does get a chance to get up there but is too infrequent. On his groundstrokes, he hits them with topspin giving himself more net clearance and margin for error.

He just needs to work on his fitness because too many times he’s been put into a situation where he’s had to fight cramps from heat exhaustion. The right training regime will get the Aussie right where needs to be to become the champion that everyone believes he will become.

Kyrgios

Just like Kokkinakis, Kyrgios possess a booming serve and forehand. He gets plenty of more free points from his serve and forehand, and he showcases more of a showman style displaying an exceptional combination of power and flair.

Unlike his younger counterpart, Kyrgios has flat groundstrokes, especially on the forehand. With his forehand, he uses a lot of arm and elbow to it. When you see his motion, there is a lack of weight transfer. This could cause plenty of forearm issues later on but for now, the 20-year-old has quite a powerful forehand that put even the best defenders on their heels.

Tomic

The eldest of the core three has the most eclectic game of the bunch. His forehand technique is old-school hitting it flat which is risky with much less margin for error than someone who hits with topspin like Kokkinakis. He has a varied baseline game using his lanky body to help him strike his backhand which is the more stable groundstroke out of the two.

Tomic often deploys a slice which can sometimes float when hit poorly, but in most cases, he hits it effortlessly, especially on the backhand side. His serve might not have quite the pop that it does when Kyrgios or Kokkinakis hit it, but he still manages to get cheap points off of it with his change of pace and using his angles wisely. His movement, however, is severely lacking.

More often than not, someone will see Tomic flat-footed or not make the necessary adjustments. He’s usually just seen taking small steps to get him ready for the next point, but his movement is a serious weak point.

Antics And Controversies: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Kokkinakis

There’s a line between emotional and fiery, and the 19-year-old clearly falls in the former. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, but he knows when to keep them in check. Twice this year, the world number 71 has been involved in a bit of controversy, and the way he handled it showed absolute class and maturity beyond his years.

The first happened at Indian Wells against Juan Monaco. Serving for the match at 5-4, Kokkinakis thought he had sealed the victory when Monaco missed a shot wide. Yet it was called good, and with no challenges remaining, the Aussie was unable to contest the call, despite Hawkeye showing it was out. Shortly after, he lost a point for apparently playing a shot after a double-bounce, only for replays to show he had legitimately kept the ball and rally alive.

Despite these calls not going his way, all the 19-year-old did was talk to the chair umpire to make his case on why his calls were wrong. At no point did he start screaming or start threatening them, he showed maturity beyond his years in this situation.

The second situation in which Kokkinakis kept his emotions in check was against Ryan Harrison in Cincinnati. Just a week after the Kyrgios incident with Stan Wawrinka, Harrison was looking to stir up some trouble. The American said to the 19-year-old, "He's 19. If he wants to get into it, I will bury him. Wawrinka should've decked Kyrgios, and I should deck that kid."

Kokkinakis took the high road knowing that he was in a peculiar situation after what Kyrgios said and tried to defuse it.

Kyrgios

Now, we begin to see the true differences between Kokkinakis and the other core members of Tennis Australia. So the most famous incident with Kyrgios was at the Rogers Cup against Wawrinka. He said to the Swiss, “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that mate.” He also said, “He’s banging an 18-year-old.”

The 20-year-old said those were in the “heat of the moment”, nonetheless, this is inexcusable behavior for a tennis player.

He’s been placed on a conditional one-month suspension from the ATP and still has about three more months until the conditional suspension is lifted. The suspension will be upheld should he incur fines totaling more than $5,000 or incur any fine that comes from physical or verbal abuse. The world number 30 escaped a fine at the Rakuten Tokyo Open for hitting a ball at the indoor roof in his match against Benoit Paire but was handed a $1,500 fine for complaining about the surface in Shanghai.

Before the start of Wimbledon, Kyrgios stirred up some controversy with his statement about tennis. The Aussie was a promising basketball player before deciding to play tennis. He’s still a big fan of the sport and even professed his love for it before the start of The Championships. Here’s what he had to say about basketball and tennis, "I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much. I don’t love it. It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport. I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much. I don’t love it. It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport.”

He’s even entertained the idea of going pro in basketball, “Every time when I’m playing now I still think I can for some odd reason, even though I’m playing a completely different sport," he said. But he's not pursuing the idea seriously.”

His antics at Wimbledon are also highly publicized and criticized. In his four set loss to Richard Gasquet, the 20-year-old got into many riffs with chair umpire James Keothavong. He was given an audible obscenity violation early on then got into another riff after the Brit in the chair asked the Aussie to leave while changing his socks on court, but the 2014 Wimbledon quarterfinalist refused.

Amongst his other horrible behaviors was slamming his racket so hard that it bounced into the crowd, hugging the ball boy, and tanking, the worst offense in tennis. If a fan was hurt from Kyrgios’ bouncing racket, the Australian would have been forced to default the match. This kind of behavior is frowned upon in the sport of tennis, and Kyrgios’ liking has taken a severe hit all over the world, especially in his home country of Australia.

Tomic

Last but not least is Australia’s original bad boy. Tomic’s dad has brought as much controversy to his son’s camp as his son has on his own, but we’ll talk about Bernard’s troubles first. It all began back in 2009 when the youngster allegedly snubbed to hit with Hewitt saying that, “Hewitt wasn’t good enough.” 2010 saw John Tomic, Bernard’s dad, threaten to quit Tennis Australia after his son’s “ridiculous” match-scheduling against Marin Cilic in the Australian Open. John Tomic threatened to pull Tomic out of Tennis Australia so he could play for Croatia.

In 2012, Tomic was fined by police three times in one day and pleaded guilty for failing to stop for police. He was placed on 12-month good behavior bond and accused an officer of trying to hit him. In December of that year, he was taken off the Davis Cup team due to his off-court behavior; the drop in Tomic was a result of a fight between the 23-year-old and his friend on a rooftop jacuzzi which resulted in police intervention.

2013 was the year where Bernard’s father John became heavily involved. John Tomic attacked his son’s hitting partner, Thomas Drouet, and was not allowed to receive credentials for tournaments. Later that year, Bernard turned 21 and was seen receiving lap dances from “Schoolies” who are younger than him.

Tomic with "Schoolies". Source: Daily Telegraph

This January, he pleaded guilty to three more traffic offenses and was fined a further $1,000.

After Wimbledon this year, the 23-year-old took shots at Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley and boycotted the Davis Cup which resulted in him being dropped for their quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan. Just a month later, he was arrested in Miami and was charged with resisting arrest and trespassing.

But wait… there’s more. These are just the off-court. 2012 was the beginning of Tomic’s on-court controversies. At the Australian Open, he was accused of cheating the challenge system in his Australian Open match against Alexandr Dolgopolov. The Aussie raised his racket to challenge a call, but it went unnoticed as Dolgopolov would hit the ensuing shot out.

2014 was the worst of it for the Aussie in his home Slam as the crowd booed him when he retired against Rafael Nadal in their first round match. The Aussies were tired of his poor behavior and believed he was tanking as they booed him off the court.

This summer, Steve Johnson witnessed these on-court antics first hand. In the third set of their match at the Citi Open, the Aussie sarcastically clapped at every winner Johnson hit, played balls casually, and laughed when losing points. When winning points, he would ask for a challenge or would yell across the net.

The Final Wrap-Up

Everything seems to be falling in place for Kokkinakis to become the man to take over the Australian Tennis throne. Okay, so the results in big tournaments aren’t quite there yet, so what? Sometimes you need to get your feet wet just a bit before the results come. It also doesn’t help that his draws aren’t the easiest, but Lady Luck will fall on his side eventually.

Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia celebrates match point during his Men's Singles match against Bernard Tomic of Australia on day five of the 2015 French Open at Roland Garros on May 28, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

With an all-court play style, a love of the game, and maturity beyond his years, look for Kokkinakis to reach the next step with a breakout Grand Slam result in 2016. Soon after that when the Golden Age of tennis is on their last legs with Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray all turning 30 in a year or two, we will witness the ultimate changing of the guard in men’s tennis as Kokkinakis will be the one to pull the reins and lead the charge for the new era of men’s tennis.

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