Hometown Hero Kokkinakis Wins First ATP Tour Title

Thanasi Kokkinakis (photo: James Elsby/Tennis Australia)

ADELAIDE/WASHINGTON, January 15, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Thanasi Kokkinakis is both a hometown hero and now a first-time ATP Tour singles titlist.

The 25-year-old Adelaide native won the ATP 250 Adelaide International 2 title with a comeback 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Arthur Rinderknech of France that turned into a big-serving battle and stretched out over two hours and 38 minutes Saturday evening.

While neither the 145th-ranked wildcard Kokkinakis nor No. 58 Rinderknech were able to break the other’s serve through the first two sets – and Kokkinakis would not face any break points throughout the entire final – the brash but likable Aussie finally secured a service break at the outset of the deciding set. It got the Memorial Drive crowd charged up behind Kokkinakis, who out-aced the 26-year-old Rinderknech 18-15, and rode the energy of the home city fans to victory.

There was plenty for Kokkinakis to appreciate. After all, after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 69 at age 19 in 2015, his career was sidetracked for quite some time following a series of major setbacks. He underwent right shoulder surgery at the end of the December 2015 season and was limited to just one singles match between November 2015 and May 2017. In 2018, he suffered a fractured knee cap and the next year a pulled pectoral. Then, he missed the entire 2020 season due to contracting mononucleosis. Finally, last year after becoming fit enough to resume playing, he won a Challenger Tour title at Biella, Italy on clay in May. Now, he’s an ATP Tour champion.

“I wouldn’t want to win my first title anywhere else,” Kokkinakis said. “To my family, friends and coaches, what a ride it’s been. You have seen me at my lowest lows and now the highest high. It’s been a serious journey For now I am so happy.

“I’ve been playing and practicing on this court since I was eight or nine years old, coming here before school every day. I love this court so much.”

Now, after back-to-back impressive showings in Adelaide – he was a semifinalist a week ago during the ATP 250 Adelaide International 1 event – Kokkinakis heads off to Melbourne and the Australian Open with a wild card into the main draw. His first-round opponent will be 126th-ranked German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann on Monday. He’s in the upper half of the draw in Alexander Zverev’s quarter. Should he beat Hanfmann and advance to the second round, his likely opponent would be No. 6 seed Rafael Nadal of Spain.

En route to his title victory – which was no easy path – Kokkinakis opened with an easy win over Benoit Paire of France, then survived three grueling tie-break sets against American John Isner in the second round and won a come-from-behind three-setter over fellow Aussie Aleksandar Vukic in the quarterfinals. Finally, he endured a 22-point third-set tie-break against No. 4 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, in which he saved two match points.

Reflecting upon a fortnight in which he began ranked No. 171 and is projected to rise to No. 103 on Monday – his highest ATP ranking since February 2016 – thanks to eight wins in nines matches, Kokkinakis summed his feelings this way: “When I saw that final ball went long, I don’t think I’ve ever felt emotions like that.

“You grow up playing, you never know if it’s ever going to happen. … Just many, many emotions. Just relief. Happy. Not just for myself and the work I put in, but everyone that stuck by me. They see me at my lowest points.

“To ride this high, it’s just validation, just happiness for everyone involved. It’s as much their title as it is mine.”

• No. 3 seeds Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Neal Skupski of Great Britain won a second straight Australia title Saturday, After lifting the trophy at the Melbourne Summer Set a week ago, Koolhof and Skupski beat Ariel Behar of Uruguay and Gonzalo Escobar of Ecuador, 7-6 (5), 6-4. They did not drop a set en route to their title victory.

The triumph was Koolhoff’s ninth tour-level title and it marked the fourth one he’s won in Australia beginning with Sydney in 2017, followed by Brisbane in 2019 and Melbourne last week. Skupski has now won eight titles.

Karatsev’s third title denies Murray of a 43rd in Sydney final

It took a near-flawless effort for World No. 20 Aslan Karatsev to wrap up his third ATP Tour singles title victory. He did so with a 6-3, 6-2 win against former World No. 1 Andy Murray to capture the championship of the Sydney Tennis Classic Saturday evening.

The No. 134 Murray from Great Britain was going after a 43rd career title – and his first in three years – when he took court inside Ken Rosewall Arena against Karatsev of Russia. When the match ended after an hour and 31 minutes, Karatsev had earned his third title victory in four finals. It was his first crown in Australia and it came a year after last year’s Australian Open, in which Karatsev came through qualifying to reach the semifinals – winning eight straight matches – before losing to nine-time winner Novak Djokovic.

After winning a pair of three-setters against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy and Dan Evans of Great Britain in the lead-up to the final, Karatsev pressured Murray throughout, hitting 14 winners against just four unforced errors in the opening set. By the end of the set, Karatsev was landing his first serves in play with much more success and it continued in the second set, too. A turning point came when Karatsev fought off five break points during a 13-minute, 16-point game to take a commanding 4-1 lead. The rest of the match was much simpler for him.

Karatsev finished the title match with 29 winners and 14 unforced errors. His serve was not broken. He became the second Russian to win the Sydney title following Daniil Medvedev in 2019.

“First of all, congrats to Andy Big effort to come back, to play unbelievable this week. I want to congratulate also your team,” Karatsev said during the trophy ceremony. “Thank you very much to my team, we are doing an amazing job. Thank you very much to everybody here for coming to support, it was an unbelievable atmosphere in a difficult situation. It’s a difficult time to make this tournament happen, so thank you to everyone.”

Next, Karatsev heads off to the Australian Open and will be seeded 18th and be in the upper half of the draw in No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev’s quarter. His first-round opponent is No. 72 Jaume Munar of Spain.

Meanwhile, Murray enters the year’s first major as the recipient of a wild card and faces a familiar opponent in No. 21 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili, whom he defeated 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-3 this week in the longest (3 hours, 13 minutes) match of the tournament in Sydney. Murray is in the lower half of the draw in No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas’s quarter.

During the trophy ceremony, Murray spoke at length to congratulate Karatsev on his title victory, to thank his own team for its unwavering support, and to acknowledge the dedication of the tournament staff and the support of the crowd that flocked to watch tennis in Sydney all week.

“I’d like to congratulate Aslan on a fantastic week,” Murray said during the trophy ceremony. “I know he also arrived here late in Australia, he was recovering from COVID, so even more impressive to come back straight away and play at that level. Good job and all the best for the Aussie Open.

“I’d like to thank my team who are here for all of their help this week. It’s my first time back in the finals for three years. It’s been a long road to get back here but I couldn’t have done it without all of your help, so thank you.

“… I’d also like to say thank you to everyone who put the event on. This is my first time in Sydney; you did a fantastic job. It’s not easy times just now to run events but I really enjoyed it, so thanks so much to everyone for putting this event on.

“Finally, to all of you who came out to support tonight, what an amazing atmosphere to play in. Thank you, it was so good. I’ve really missed playing in front of these sorts of crowds and these sorts of matches. Unfortunately, the result didn’t go my way tonight but I’ll keep trying my best to come back and have more nights like this.”

• Aussie John Peers and Filip Polasek of Slovakia teamed to win the Sydney Tennis Classic doubles title Saturday with a 7-5, 7-5 victory over Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini, both of Italy. It was the second title for Peers and Polasek since becoming a team last August and it marked the 10th consecutive year that Peers has won a doubles title.

The Australian/Slovakian duo improved to 20-7 as a team and it was the 26th doubles title for the World No. 13 Peers, including 5-1 in title matches in Australia. Meanwhile, Polasek captured his 17th doubles title.