Challenger Q&A: Kokkinakis Back In Winners' Circle In Aptos
What a road it's been for Thanasi Kokkinakis. After three years of fighting through injuries and battling to stay healthy, all the hard work is finally paying off.
On Sunday, the 22-year-old Aussie returned to the winners' circle on the ATP Challenger Tour, claiming his first singles title since 2015 at the Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos, California. Kokkinakis capped a strong week which saw him drop just one set and rout Lloyd Harris 6-2, 6-3 in the final. Harris entered the match in strong form, having won 18 sets in a row, but was outplayed from the first ball.
Kokkinakis, who ascended to a career-high No. 69 in the ATP Rankings in 2015, is fighting to return to the Top 100 after a catalogue of physical ailments hampered his progress over the years. He is up 69 spots to No. 199 with his victory in Aptos, continuing the momentum that started in March when he stunned Roger Federer at the Miami Open presented by Itau.
And the Adelaide native is flying on both singles and doubles courts this summer. One week after lifting the doubles trophy with Taylor Fritz at the ATP World Tour event in Los Cabos, he also added a title with Matt Reid in Aptos, teaming with his countryman for the first time.
Congrats Thanasi. The main question you will be asked is how is the body holding up? You've overcome many injuries and it's been a long week in Aptos.
It's pretty sore and I had a quick turnaround after reaching the doubles final last week at [the ATP World Tour event in] Los Cabos. But I needed some singles matches and I couldn't have asked for more this week. I'm a little sore, that's for sure, and I was nursing a little elbow thing but thankfully that has held up all week. My body has felt a lot worse, so that's the positive. I don't think I've ever played this many matches in a week.
Are you able to relish this with your game, after all the health issues and missing as much time as you did?
It means a lot. I obviously reached my career-high [ATP Ranking] in 2015, but I feel I'm a much better player now than I was back then. I've improved a lot of things and I haven't always had the opportunity to show it. I've shown that when I'm able to play a few in a row, I've had good results. One was in Miami against Federer and then falling in Monte-Carlo messed me up because I thought I was gaining good momentum. Fracturing my knee took me longer to come back than I thought. I played the grass without too much form, but I'm starting to get my legs under me. This is just my third Challenger this year, so I couldn't have asked for more.
Thanasi Kokkinakis (@TKokkinakis) August 14, 2018
The quarter-final win [over Prajnesh Gunneswaran] is the one I want to talk about. It was very cold and misty as well. You had a tough time hitting through the court and it was different from any other match this week. How did you mentally click in to get through it?
It was definitely a tough match and he's played some good tennis recently. Also, I can't remember ever playing in conditions that cold. I was trying to serve through my elbow issue and that didn't feel very good when it's cold. I just hung tight and stayed really focused with my composure. I kept fighting, because often in tournaments when you're not at your best level, you can scrap your way through and then find it in the later rounds. I know what I'm capable of, so I know I can match up with the best in the world.
I was talking with one of the other players, who was saying that if you're playing at your top level, you win this tournament nine out of 10 times. How do you consistently get to that level?
It's health, it's mindset and it's repetition. It sounds corny, but it is trusting the process. A lot of weeks you don't play your best tennis. I'm fighting and working hard to put in the time on the practice court. I really wanted to start playing a lot of doubles and I think that's helped me. I have a long way to go. In my singles, I can get to the net a lot more and take advantage of opportunities for me to finish. I'll try to not be put off my many volley misses and keep progressing. There is still so much to do with my game. I know what I'm capable of, but I just need to stay healthy and focused. Those two things.
You really looked the part this week, beating top seed Fabbiano and then Harris, who had won 18 straight sets entering the final. Now you're looking towards the US Open. How do you maintain the momentum in the short term?
I know Tennis Australia have a wild card and I don't know who they're going to give it to. I was told that I need to show that I can play matches and I couldn't have shown it in a better way than this week. If it's qualies, it is what it is. I need to get my ranking up so I don't have to be in this position. I want to be back in the Top 100 by the end of this year. I just got to keep playing and stay focused.
How do you find the right mixture of Challengers and ATP World Tour qualifying events, to get your ranking back up?
I think a mixture is good. Coming back, nothing can replace matches. You can play unbelievable in practice all you want and I've done that the past couple years. I'm playing guys in practice who are Top 20, Top 10 even, and I'm thinking what I'm doing wrong in matches to not play this well. A lot of it is confidence. I'm moving better in matches and you can do all the movement drills off court, but until you're out there reacting to balls and competing and giving effort in every point, you start to learn that. I'm starting to find that competitive edge again that I was missing.
Talk about what your team has provided you. Todd Langman obviously has been your longtime coach and you recently brought on Vasek Jursik to work with the physical side.
Well, Vasek has just added more routine to my performances. There's nothing groundbreaking to be honest. It's just the little things that I wasn't doing best. And it's been tough on him as well, because literally right when I started working with him, I fell in Monte-Carlo. I've been training a little at Mouratoglou Academy when I'm in Europe. They have great facilities for me to use and he's brought more structure and helped me with my flexibility and mobility. He's definitely more consistency in my warm-ups and cool-downs and focus. And with Todd, we fight all the time, but he's more like a brother than a coach. I love having him in my corner and he's the first coach I ever had. I don't think too many people can say that. We know we care about each other regardless, and that's the biggest thing.