Thanasi Kokkinakis: working his way back

Published by Matt Trollope

Thanasi Kokkinakis; Getty Images

Thanasi Kokkinakis has endured a frustrating recovery period following shoulder surgery, one that has extended longer than he anticipated or hoped. Yet encouraged by his recent improvements and with a return to competition drawing nearer, the Aussie teen expects to be back stronger and more motivated than ever.

Watching the recent free-fall of Thanasi Kokkinakis’ ranking has been a tough ask for the many fans of Australia’s popular young gun.

Kokkinakis, at 19 one of the brightest prospects in men’s tennis and who peaked at world No.69 in June 2015, now barely clings to a place inside the world’s top 150. Such a slide is hardly his fault – the South Australian continues to recover from a debilitating shoulder injury which necessitated surgery in late December, forcing him to skip the entire Australian summer season and sit out March’s Davis Cup tie between Australia and the United States.

He hasn’t hit a competitive ball since October.

Thankfully, a return to competition is imminent. Kokkinakis is targeting the week or two before Roland Garros to launch his comeback; he has the option of using a protected ranking from 2 May.

While enouraged by his incremental improvement and willing to take the time necessary to build strength and stability in his shoulder, Kokkinakis concedes his time away from tennis has been tough.

“Before I had the surgery, or just after it, I would have expected that I’d be ready to go a bit before that (time) and maybe ready to play tournaments … now it’s looking maybe a little bit at the other end of the spectrum there, it could take a little longer,” he told Tennismash.

“But I’ve taken all this time already – I might as well not rush it and try to get it as strong as I can, so hopefully down the track it won’t really bother me too much.

“The longer it (goes) the tougher, because sometimes you hit a stall and it’s not healing as quickly as it should or you’re not able to do things when maybe the surgeon said you should be ready to go. Everyone’s body responds differently so that’s been the toughest part, just trying to be motivated every day to do what I need to do.

“I’m just trying to do all I can, and trying to maintain strength and fitness without over-pushing the boundaries so it takes longer for me to come back. So yeah, it’s been tough.”

Helping Kokkinakis during such a mentally taxing period have been the people surrounding him. He credited trainer Andrew Rondinelli for working with him every day and being “a good guy to have around”. He said fellow Aussie John Millman – the Queenslander who has himself come back from two shoulder surgeries – had recently messaged him to remind him to be patient during this process.

Originally from Adelaide, Kokkinakis has been spending lots more time in Melbourne – where his sister also lives – and enjoying the fact that “there’s a little bit more to do” in the host city of the year’s first Grand Slam event. And it was there, during Australian Open 2016, where he immersed himself in sponsor-related activities with Lavazza and Medibank and soaked up the event from a fan’s perspective.

That included sitting in Nick Kyrgios’ entourage during his compatriot’s electric run to the third round. “It was good also seeing the support I was getting there as well – during one of Nick’s matches they showed me on the screen and the crowd went nuts which was pretty unreal for me. It shows how much they (the fans) mean as well for me,” he said.

For all his frustration, Kokkinakis is at least familiar with rehabilitating a serious injury. He is no stranger to spending lengthy periods out of action – he developed a stress fracture at 15 which sidelined him for seven months and played through a stress fracture during the Australian Open 2013 junior final against Kyrgios that ultimately forced him out for another six months.

“It feels like I’ve almost missed about two years of my career already and I’m only 19. So I guess it raises the question of where would I be if I wasn’t (injured),” he said.

“But everyone goes through these injuries. It’s frustarting but you’ve just got to do what you can and hopefully use this time to work on your weaknesses a little bit and kind of get your mind thinking about what you need to improve on.”

That’s not the only positive that Kokkinakis has learned to extract from a less-than-ideal situation.

The big-hitting baseliner – whose powerful serve and forehand carried him to the fourth round at Indian Wells and the third round at Roland Garros in 2015 – has also discovered how much he misses the game when prevented from competing.

It should make his impending return all the more enjoyable and rewarding.

“I’m sounding like a veteran here, but you realise a little bit when you’re healthy how much better it is and how much you’re enjoying playing and travelling and playing those tournaments rather than sitting back,” he said.

“It’s good to have a break for a little bit, maybe a month is good. But when it’s a long injury like this it gets pretty frustrating after the second or third month. But the more I’m allowed to do on court and the more my shoulder starts getting better and freed up then I can kind of get my head around coming back.

“Now as the season’s gone on I’m just trying to make sure I’m ready for the French Open.”

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