There was a seeming familiarity to the eighteenth game of the Men’s Doubles semifinal in Melbourne this January: Nick Kyrgios was yelling at a chair umpire. After two allegedly blown net cord calls on his serve, Kyrgios was visibly agitated. Then, a rogue fan shouted during Kyrgios’ toss at deuce, which sparked more yelling and a chucked ball. Finally, there was the classic racket slam in disgust after Zeballos and Granollers broke to get back on serve, 3-4.
The seven-point performance read like a familiar story with an even more familiar ending. However, this time, Kyrgios was not the only one with a pen—there was a friendly face along the baseline. His partner and long-time friend, Thanasi Kokkinakis, stooped down and picked up the cracked Yonex frame. The Aussie pair––known as “Special Ks”––sat down and chatted a bit during the changeover. Two games later, Kokkinakis fired off three aces in a crucial hold to go up 5-4. The storm passed. And just like that, the pair rolled into its first-ever Grand Slam final, subsequently beating Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell 7-5 6-4 to win the Men’s Doubles Australian Open.
In a Mr. Rogers-like twist, the wil dcard duo’s journey this January illustrated the real power of friendship. There were no silent walks to the baseline, no matches spent lamenting the chair umpire. The gladiator-like isolation of singles was replaced by running banter and the occasional ass-slap. With Kokkinakis by his side, Kyrgios wasn’t consumed by the disappointment of an errant return or a netted volley. Likewise, Kokkinakis reaped the benefits of playing alongside a generationally-talented partner in Kyrgios. He was, self-admittedly, in rare form, playing the kind of confident, free-swinging doubles that only exists in partnerships of complete trust
Much like Kyrgios’ serve or Kokkinakis’ forehand return, the pair’s close personal friendship was a decisive factor in their victory. The two talents first met at around nine years old, traveling around Australia together to junior tournaments. “I’ve known the big fella since he was a chubby kid from Canberra,” Kokkinakis quipped after the pair’s quarterfinal win. In 2013, an 18-year-old Kyrgios and 17-year-old Kokkinakis won the Wimbledon Boys Junior Doubles Championship. While their strokes may have changed, their on-court camaraderie remains just as strong nine years later.
Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis
For Kyrgios especially, playing alongside a friend seemed to alleviate the stress and solitude of singles. The composure required to win a two-week-long Grand Slam has notoriously eluded him. His best finish came at Wimbledon in 2014, with a quarterfinal run ended by the hard-serving Milos Raonic. On the singles court, Kyrgios often looks apathetic––relying on a rotation of flair shots to keep from falling asleep. “I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much,” he admitted in a 2015 press conference. In 2016, Kyrgios faced accusations of ‘tanking’––intentionally losing matches––at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, a claim he later addressed at large, stating on certain days he’d, “rather be doing something else than playing tennis.” Years later, in 2019, he ignited a heated clash with umpire Fergus Murphy in Cincinnati, earning a record $167,000 fine in the process. Watching Kyrgios play, cracked rackets seem to resemble on-court therapy; a way of shouting at the void and finally hearing a response.
Kyrgios’ reputation only heightens the singularity of his doubles victory with Kokkinakis. Tennis fans turned on their televisions expecting the Hulk but getting Bruce Banner. The duo’s run to the Australian Open title, full of wins over top-seeded competition, proves that friendship cannot be quantified like unforced errors or first-serve percentage. For an unforgettable two weeks in January, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis brought out the best of the Australian Open crowd, and more importantly, the best in each other.
Embed from Getty Images