On a stifling Melbourne Park night in 2014, when Pat Rafter was Australia’s Davis Cup captain and the world a vastly different place, the dual US Open champion spent the evening moving between two heaving courts to watch the gifted teenagers who had contested the junior final the year before.
There it was, illuminated by the bright lights of the grand slam stage: the future of Australian men’s tennis. Along with the super-talented 21-year-old Wimbledon quarter-finalist Bernard Tomic, it seemed the next generation was arriving as the great warrior Lleyton Hewitt was preparing to depart.
The names: Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. Or the “Special Ks”, as they were quickly dubbed. Close friends and sometime doubles partners. Both with paternal Greek heritage, big games, controversies and boundless confidence.
Six years later, Rafter is living the quiet life in Byron Bay, and the Ks are finally both back after some detours making some simultaneous noise.
Kyrgios has never really stopped, to be honest, remaining famously vocal despite a voluntary full year off from competition once the pandemic shut down the tour for five months in March.
Ever the showman, Kyrgios electrified what – for obvious reasons – has so far been an uncharacteristically subdued event, saving two match points in a rousing five-set defeat of French 29th seed Ugo Humbert on his favourite John Cain Arena in Wednesday night’s second round.
He will next play third seed Dominic Thiem, but is scheduled first for doubles with his pal Kokkinakis.
“It’s good to see Thanasi back, obviously,” said Kyrgios on court.
“To see him go through what he went through, and to get back healthy and finally play the tennis that he’s capable of, that was amazing to see.
He had tears in his eyes and I’ve been one of his closest friends, I’ve seen it all, and I’m so proud of that kid, I swear. He was going to give up, and he stayed with it.
“I was actually thinking about him a little bit out here as well. That was so special to him and it kept me going a little bit.”
Kokkinakis will take his turn on the main stage on Thursday, as one of seven Australians who will complete a second round more heavily populated with locals than any since 1992.
Now ranked 267th, Tuesday’s emotional straight sets defeat of Korean Soonwoo Kwon was his first at his home slam since 2015 – the year a 19-year-old Kokkinakis briefly peaked at No.69.
Multiple injuries followed, and then, last January, just when it seemed his body was finally healed, a bout of glandular fever stripped Kokkinakis of 14 kilograms while hospitalising him twice.
“The people around me know the ups and downs of what I have been through mentally just trying to get to the starting line of the tournament, and feel like I can compete,’’ he said.
“It’s been very, very challenging the last few years. It always is. It’s a massive, massive journey.’’
And, now, into a Greek-themed duel with charismatic fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas on Rod Laver Arena, following the local derby between Ash Barty and Daria Gavrilova.
“For the crowd to get behind you, you actually have to play. He’s done that. That’s probably my next step,’’ quipped Kokkinakis when asked who would have the most fan support.
“So I don’t know. He’s popular, but, yeah, I don’t mind my support either. It’s going to be fun. Hopefully it can just be rowdy, it’s going to be exciting. Obviously a phenomenal player, one of the favourites for this tournament. It’s just going to be fun.
“I just can’t wait to get out there … I’m hoping there is a decent crowd and it can get rowdy, have some Greek fans, Aussie fans, and, yeah, hopefully it’s pretty loose.’’
Much has been made of his no-brand black t-shirt, with the Australian revealing he had bought a bunch of $6 bargain tops at Chadstone, and unsuccessfully tried to order a few more online.
Yet as much as Kmart Kokkinakis sounds like a quirky riches-to-rags tale, it was not quite the full story.
His agent Fraser Wright confirmed to The New Daily that there is no lack of interest from apparel sponsors; it was just that the long-time Nike wearer first needs to sort out which type of footwear suits him best. And a grand slam is not the place to experiment.
Kokkinakis played along, though, telling the media with a smile that “it’s tough out here, man. It’s not what it used to be. That’s all right, blue collar way.’’
Yet he is scarcely on the bread line, for the South Australian’s guaranteed $150,000 for reaching the second round takes his official career prizemoney to around $2 million. He is 24.
Still, Kmart PR types predictably sniffed the breeze, and Kokkinakis told Nine after his practice on Wednesday that there was “a little package coming” from the retail version of the Big K, while a new sponsor, SafetyCulture, has also jumped aboard.
He has already received a congratulatory Instagram message from Roger Federer, whom he famously spent 16 days practising with in Dubai in 2014, and then upset as a qualifier at the 2018 Miami Masters.
So now for Tsitsipas. The pair has shared family meals, and many practice sessions, with the Greek star having noted the Greek-Aussie’s many injury struggles.
“Now he’s back. I feel like he’s playing well,’’ said Tsitsipas. “I have had I think more experience on the tour than him and I can use that in my favour, but in a way, I feel like he doesn’t really have much to lose. He is playing in front of a crowd that loves him and he has played some really good matches here.’’
As for the 229th ranked Tomic, who was forced to qualify and then benefitted from a first-round retirement, the now 28-year-old won just six games against 11th seeded young Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
We can safely report, though, that, in the player box, his controversial “I don’t wash my own hair’’ girlfriend Vanessa Sierra was looking suitably shampooed.
Having graciously posed for a selfie with a fan as he left court three, Tomic was then asked in the interview room to comment on the assertion from another former Davis Cup captain, John Fitzgerald, that he did not expect to see Tomic – whose effort he questioned – back at the Australian Open again.
Harsh? “I mean, of course it is. But, you know, he’s probably the worst commentator I’ve ever seen in my life, as well.’’
Whack. And yet on a day of few Tomic winners, years of mostly squandered talent seemed like a far greater crime.
Nothing terribly special about that.