Kokkinakis pounds his chest after completing an incredible comeback victory against Lukas Rosol.
You’re 18 years old, playing your first-ever live Davis Cup match a long way from home. You’re getting hammered two sets to love by a player ranked 101 places higher than you and you’re down a break in the third. Oh, and there’s a bunch of lunatics banging drums and blowing trumpets in your ear. So what do you do?
If you’re Thanasi Kokkinakis, you smile.
That was the advice his first-time captain Wally Masur gave him at Cev Stadium in the Czech Republic on Saturday morning AEST.
And crazy as it might sound, it worked.
South Australian Kokkinakis, who was pitchforked into the vital opening singles spot by Masur following the late withdrawal of fellow young gun Nick Kyrgios, was on the end of a tennis lesson by Czech number one Lukas Rosol when Masur gave him one of the shortest and most bizarre pep talks in the long history of Davis Cup.
It might not have been as dramatic as the time Australian captain Harry Hopman threw a towel in the face of exhausted teenager Lew Hoad during his 1953 five-setter against American Tony Trabert, but it proved just as effective, with Kokkinakis launching an amazing turnaround to win 4-6 2-6 7-5 7-5 6-3.
“Wally knew I wasn’t playing great and the other guy was killing me for two and a half sets,” Kokkinakis recalled of that crucial moment. “He just told me to smile and I responded. It’s pretty hard to smile when you’re getting chopped and you’re down two sets and a break. He said, ‘I know but you’ll get your chance’, and he was right. I just hung in there.”
For Masur, the fact that Kokkinakis could pull it together with so much going against him is testament to the young man’s character — and a portent of great things to come for him and the Australian Davis Cup future.
With the emergence over the past few years of Kokkinakis, 19 year-old Kyrgios and 22 year-old Bernard Tomic, much has been said and written about the imminent arrival of Australia’s next golden generation of Davis Cup players.
Davis Cup captain Wally Masur embraces Thanasi Kokkinakis after his win. Source: AP
The performances of Kokkinakis and Tomic, who followed his team-mate’s heroics with a 6-4 6-3 7-6 (7-5) win over Jiri Vesely to give Australia a perfect start to the tie, suggest that time has actually arrived, but if not for Masur’s timely intervention, it could easily have been put back another year or two.
“He had to relax,” Masur said of Kokkinakis. “He was so bound up and sometimes if you can just get them to smile and realise that things are not quite that bad, they can start to claw back. Of course that’s easier said than done because I’ve been the guy on court and it’s all going so fast, and you can’t change it. But he did change it.
“He’s a sharp guy, a smart guy, so while he was in trouble he was smart enough to analyse the situation and believe in himself. And he’s got game. The irony is that he’s going to be a lot better player in three to five years than what you saw tonight.
Kokkinakis and Rosol shake hands after their epic match. Source: AFP
“He’s an improving player. He’s got a long way to go but he’s got something. There’s no doubt about it and you saw that tonight. He’s got that X-Factor. What is it? He found a way to win and players that find a way to win, they keep finding a way to win.”
No doubt, but rarely, if ever, will Kokkinakis have to conquer as intimidating an environment as he did against Rosol. In his previous career highlight — a five set win over Latvian 11th seed Ernests Gulbis at this year’s Australian Open — he was buoyed by the raucous support of a home crowd. In Ostrava, the locals were anything but friendly.
Whether by luck or good management the usually dominant Australian cheer-squad known as The Fanatics were seated high in the stand. Their Czech counterparts, dressed in colourful wigs and equipped with a trombone, trumpet, drums and vuvuzelas were courtside, and reminded Kokkinakis of that fact for the entire match.
Kokkinakis can’t believe it! Source: AFP
“I couldn’t even hear our guys,” he said. “Usually they’re so loud but their guys had the drums, the horns. There was a lot of them and they were right there by the court. No matter how loud our guys were they were right up in the bleachers so it was a different atmosphere to what I was used to.
“Against Gulbis I was down and had to fight back but I had the crowd behind me. Here I had the drums in my ear the whole time. I kind of wanted to turn and rub it in at the end but then I thought I’d keep it to myself.”
And instead, did something even more symbolic.