Home charge Thanasi Kokkinakis fought back to complete a mesmerising 5-7 7-6(4) 6-4 Mastercard Hopman Cup triumph over world No.4 Alexander Zverev before a captivated Perth Arena crowd.
Despite knowing Team Australia can’t make Saturday’s final, Kokkinakis put in phenomenal attacking performance over two hours 41 minutes, with 40 winners to his name, to leave Germany’s ticket to the silverware showdown hanging on the mixed doubles.
“I think you can say that I’m back,” said Kokkinakis, having endured two injury-blighted seasons. “It’s against someone like him. I was there, or there abouts when we were in juniors. I got injured and he just took off at world No.4. Being the same age, there is a little rivalry there. It annoyed me, but it also made me hungry.
“It definitely means a lot and I’m very happy with my level here. I have a long way to improve, but it gives me an assurance that the work I’m doing with my coaching staff and team for all this time out is paying off.”
In their first-ever senior meeting Kokkinakis was undeterred by the superior ranking of the German, erasing an early break point with a hammering forehand down the line.
Zverev was launching returns deep, pushing the home charge behind the baseline, but Kokkinakis kept finding timely serves to frustrate the towering 20-year-old.
However, Zverev’s patience and precision was finally rewarded. A cross court forehand return winner chalked up another break chance, prompting the German to roar “let’s go.”
A rocket return teased the error out of Kokkinakis, before a rapid hold to love closed out a highly competitive set.
A brilliant rally kicked off proceedings at 2-2, with the quality soaring in set two. Kokkinakis had Zverev sprawling from corner to corner on the baseline with dogged defence, but the local charge sprinted to the net to cut an acute volley. The ardent Aussie crowd approved and offered a boisterous ovation as the 21-year-old held.
A first break point for the Adelaide youngster was swiftly erased by more laser-like Zverev serving.
Kokkinakis kept ramping up the pressure as a front runner. A game with a trio of aces, before three winners in his next service game chalked up 5-4 to the world No.209.
The pressure told, two adrenaline pumped returns forced Zverev to misfire for a set point, but a backhand hooked long.
A giant forehand return out wide glanced the baseline and it was take two for Kokkinakis. This time a forehand launched into the net.
The fourth set point was astonishing. Zverev tracked down two volleys, retrieved a smash, to then whip a vicious forehand passing shot. What an escape to level 5-5 following a 12-minute hold.
— Hopman Cup (@hopmancup) January 5, 2018
Kokkinakis stormed to another hold and earned a brace of set points with two emphatic overheads, however, the Zverev defence would not back down.
The tiebreak encapsulated the confidence coursing through Kokkinakis. Three drive volleys did the damage and at the eighth attempt, he closed out a pulsating 70-minute set when a Zverev backhand drifted long.
“I’ve played like that in patches in practice, but it is a different ball game when it matters in matches,” reflected Kokkinakis. “Especially at the end of the second set, I started to free up and play tennis I know I’m capable of. For the crowd and people watching on TV to see that is big for me.”
Locked at 2-2 in the decider, Kokkinakis picked off Zverev twice at the net, with the Australian’s forehand well and truly in the zone to steal the decisive break.
The 21-year-old remained composed and had two match points serving at 5-4. The first one was crossed off by a sumptuous Zverev backhand passing shot, a second dissolved after a double fault.
He wasn’t to be denied. A 14,000-strong crowd rose to their feet to salute a monumental effort as a Zverev backhand flew long.
“It feels good,” added the elated home favourite, whose phone was inundated with messages of congratulations. “Both of us were trying our hearts out there. We kept on fighting and it was definitely a big win for me.”
It’s been a long road, but Kokkinakis is back in the big time.