On paper, the evening match between Thanasi Kokkinakis and three-time US Open champion Rafael Nadal looks like an easy blowout in Nadal’s favor. Due primarily to injuries picked up both this year, and in previous seasons, Kokkinakis has not been on the radar of many tennis fans. In fact, the Australian has only played five tour-level matches this year, winning just two. His ranking is currently down #203, far from his career high of #69 in 2015. However, it may not prove so straightforward for the great Spaniard. Kokkinakis has a big game that can cause even the best players problems when he is on form.
Setbacks for Kokkinakis
Kokkinakis is far more talented than his ranking shows. He also has had plenty of experience in big matches even at 23-years-old. He had a breakthrough 2015, which saw him reach as high as #69, and finish the year at a very respectable #80 for the Australian who was still 19. 2016 was a massive disappointment for him, with a left shoulder injury allowing him to enter just one tournament in the entire year. He withdrew from several tournaments in early 2017, but finally was able to play consistent tennis in the second half of the season. Although his ranking had plummeted, he picked up right where he left off, earning his first top-10 win over Milos Raonic on grass and making his first ATP final at Los Cabos.
2018 was an up-and-down year for Kokkinakis. He earned by far his biggest career win in Miami over then-world #1 Roger Federer in three sets. But he could not continue that success, suffering a knee injury about a month later in Monte Carlo. Kokkinakis was able to recover his fitness in the second half of the year, but his form did not rebound and he had to battle mostly in Challenger Tour events.
2019 had been almost as bad as 2016 with injuries. He missed the Australian Open with a right shoulder injury that hampered him through April, then he hurt his right pectoral muscle, with that that injury keeping him mostly off the court until last month. But in Los Cabos, he earned his first win in 492 days, since his win over Federer.
Why Kokkinakis has a chance
Kokkinakis does not have the most impressive record this season, but he has won a good amount of matches, most on hard courts. In fact, unlike Nadal who played a heavy clay season and Wimbledon, has played only hard-court matches since his comeback in early July. He is best on that surface, and actually has a combined winning record at Indian Wells and Miami, the two largest non-major hard court tournaments. His win over Federer was on hard, as was his win over former top-five player Tomas Berdych in Los Cabos.
He has a big game with a powerful serve and forehand, and knowing Nadal is such a challenging matchup, will likely go for even bigger shots with a nothing to lose mentality. He has played Nadal once as a 17-year-old, which allowed him to see the Spaniard’s game, and although Nadal won easily, the match was much closer than the scoreline indicated.
Still Nadal’s to lose
Overall, Nadal is still almost a lock to win, but it is reasonable to expect a difficult match, with maybe even a set to Kokkinakis. Kokkinakis is helped by his large serve, which may be able to get him to a tiebreak where a couple points his way can give him the set. He also is just glad to be back on the court and will bring his biggest game, knowing a loss for him will have minimal consequences. Nadal is prepared for this, saying “He’s young. He has a big forehand, big serve. He’s a dangerous opponent, of course…I need to go on court and to play well. If not, it will be a very difficult match.” On top of this, Nadal is one of the hardest workers in the game, and will be prepared for anything. Nadal also has the conditions on his side, with the courts playing slower than they do most years. Nadal will win the match, but he must try to knock out Kokkinakis quickly to save energy for later in the tournament.
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