When Thanasi Kokkinakis had the chance to compete alongside Venus Williams at Mastercard Hopman Cup 2013 as a 16-year-old reserve, a dream to make a more official debut at the mixed teams event was inevitably sparked.
Given the highs that followed – he was runner-up to Nick Kyrgios in the Australian Open boys’ event only weeks later and achieved a career-high world No.69 ranking in 2015 – the only surprise was that Thanasi’s chance to represent Australia in Perth would take so long.
But in the years since, Kokkinakis has battled a range of physical ailments, including a shoulder injury that required surgery. As he noted at Perth Arena this week: “I feel like I’ve been around for a while but I still feel like I’m relatively new to the tour in a way.”
It’s an assessment that points to the rare perspective that Kokkiknakis, still just 21, has gained in his time away from competitive tennis. While most his age would be rushing to add the big wins that befit his exquisite talent, the South Australian understands that patience is required.
Progress at Mastercard Hopman Cup is therefore measured in far more than straight wins. “I haven’t played that many matches,” he reminded observers in Perth. “For me it’s just about staying healthy.”
In three guaranteed matches in the unique format, there’s also the chance for important fine-tuning, Thanasi having worked on his trademark serve and embraced the pressure of contesting matches before an expectant home crowd.
“A lot of the times I’m playing free in practice and I’m not used to having the crowd and everything tightens up in matches a little bit. That’s what I need to get used to. I need to start playing with that freedom again,” he explained.
— Hopman Cup (@hopmancup) December 31, 2017
Not that Kokkinakis is discouraged by the form he’s displayed so far. Pleased with the focus and aggression he maintained in a 6-4 3-6 6-3 win over Vasek Pospisil in Australia’s opening tie against Canada, Kokkinakis could also recognise the progress after a straight-sets loss to world No.7 David Goffin.
“I wasn’t too angry with my game. I thought I was there with him,” he said. “A few points here or there and I think I could change the match.”
Kokkinakis’ next marker is in the Friday night meeting with world No.4 Alexander Zverev, who he encountered many times as a junior, but is yet to compete against on the professional tour.
“We’ve practised with each other a fair few times and it’s been very tight but obviously he’s got more match experience,” he said of Zverev, whose progress he could well have matched if not for the frustrating injury breaks.
“He’s a year younger than me but he’s played a lot more tennis than I have even through (20)15, 16 and 17 where I missed two-and-a-bit years of tennis.”
Making up for lost time would seem an obvious temptation for the spirited Kokkinakis, especially given his headline-grabbing progress on his return to the tour last year.
In only his fourth event in more than a year at Queen’s Club in London, the South Australia stunned 2016 Wimbledon finalist and No.3 seed Milos Raonic. At Los Cabos two tournaments later, he upset top seed Tomas Berdych to reach his first ATP Final.
But the South Australian firmly maintains a big picture view. A win against Zverev would be welcome but his first Melbourne Park showing in over two years also looms.
“I’m trying to build for Aussie Open but also trying to sustain for the whole year as well,” he pointed. “So I’m not putting too much emphasis on right now. There’s a lot of tennis left in the year so I’m trying to make sure my body’s ready for that full time.”
While managing physical challenges there are other pressures to be navigated – especially those created by Thanasi himself.
“There’s always expectation from everyone. From me and my family, from all the media and whatever,” he said. “I think the biggest expectation is from me because I know what I’m capable of.”
It’s cautious confidence from the candid young Australian – but confidence nonetheless.
“I think I’m a lot better player than (when) before I was injured. It’s just going to take some time to show that,” he pointed out.
There’ll be a certain freedom as the South Australian takes to the court for his final 2018 match at Perth Arena; if reaching full potential is still some time off for Kokkinakis, it’s will also be worth the wait.