Stefanos Tsitsipas has always said he feels at home in Melbourne, and his consistency at the Australian Open is testament to that.
The Greek star moved into the third round at Melbourne Park for a third consecutive year with a gritty 6-7(5) 6-4 6-1 6-7(5) 6-4 win over Thanasi Kokkinakis on Thursday.
The world No.6 rallied back from a set down, and extinguished a Kokkinakis comeback attempt to book a last-32 clash with his training partner Mikael Ymer of Sweden.
“I just want to go for an ice bath right now, that’s all I’m thinking,” said Tsitsipas after the four-hour 32-minute battle.
“Thanasi is a great competitor and a great fighter. It was very difficult facing him today.
“He wasn’t able to play all these years due to injuries that he had, and it was a big shame because we were missing someone who was not there with us on the tour. I’m very happy to see him back competing at a very high level.”
It was a heroic performance from Kokkinakis, who hadn’t played in a Grand Slam since US Open 2019. But Tsitsipas banked on his experience to scrape through.
Tsitsipas is Greece’s most successful tennis player in history, and was pumped for his first meeting with Kokkinakis, a South Australian with Greek roots ranked 267 in the world.
The 22-year-old Tsitsipas made waves in Melbourne in 2019 when he defeated Roger Federer en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal. He returned to the last-four stage of a major at Roland Garros 2020, and is hoping to break that barrier and make his first slam final this fortnight.
Like Tsitsipas, Kokkinakis has a victory over Federer on his resume (in Miami 2018). But a series of serious injuries have plagued his career, and he arrived in Melbourne this year having played just six tour-level matches in 2019 before sitting out the entire 2020 season.
Kokkinakis, who was given a wild card into the event, hadn’t won a main draw match at the Australian Open in six years prior to his first-round dismissal of Kwon Soon-Woo on Tuesday. His tearful reaction to that victory conveyed just how hard he has fought to get back to that point.
The popular Aussie, who was supported from the stands by a huge group of friends and family, including this week’s doubles partner Nick Kyrgios, is friendly with Tsitsipas and has spent time with the Greek and his family in the south of France in the past. But all pleasantries were brushed aside when they stepped on court at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday.
Kokkinakis and Tsitsipas were neck and neck throughout the opening set, each saving a pair of break points in the first eight games.
Tsitsipas upped the pressure though with Kokkinakis serving to stay in the set. The Greek targeted his opponent’s backhand to create multiple break points, but some clutch serving from Kokkinakis saw him save two set points to hold for 5-5.
The set fittingly went to a tiebreak and it was Kokkinakis who edged it, benefitting from a Tsitsipas double fault to secure the lead in 64 minutes.
After saving all eight break points he had faced to that stage of the match, Kokkinakis finally surrendered a service game on Tsitsipas’ ninth opportunity, his backhand letting him down to fall behind 1-2 in the second set.
That break was all Tsitsipas needed to level the match, as the fifth seed breezed through his own service games to scoop the second set in 45 minutes.
Tsitsipas was in a hurry in the third but Kokkinakis slowed him down in the fourth, saving a match point and forcing a tiebreak. The Australian saw a 5-1 lead slip away in the breaker, but he halted the Tsitsipas comeback and secured the set with a sensational backhand down-the-line winner. The stats sheet for the fourth set read like a Tsitsipas win, but it was Kokkinakis who was clutch when it mattered the most.
Kokkinakis avoided an early fifth-set letdown by saving four break points in his first two service games but he faltered in game five, as Tsitsipas made his way to a 4-2 lead and kept his advantage to lock down his place in the third round.
He signed the camera with the following text: ‘Young, wild and free – three words that aptly describe Tsitsipas and the younger generation on tour right now.
“I think we’re a generation of great players, we have many different players, ones that stay back, ones that come to the net, there is so much variety, there’s so much diversity among us,” said Tsitsipas.
“I think we’re expected to see really good tennis in the next couple of years and I think that’s going to make it really interesting, all of us fighting for the No.1 spot, fighting to be at the top. I think that’s much more interesting than the top three right now.”
Source: Reem Abulleil