Much media response to Australia’s opening-day showing in the Men’s Singles draw at Wimbledon honed in on the changing-of-the-guard narrative derived from the contrasting fortunes of Nick Kyrgios and Lleyton Hewitt.
For where Kyrgios (20), the player most commonly held up as the future of Australian men’s tennis, put in one of Monday’s finest performances by dispatching Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman 6-0, 6-2, 7-6 in just 85 minutes, Hewitt bid a final farewell to the All England Club on the back of a dramatic (and undeniably fitting) five-set defeat at the hands of the Finnish veteran, Jarkko Nieminen.
— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) June 30, 2015
But as compelling as the Hewitt-Kyrgios juxtaposition is, one feels that another young Aussie hopeful bears more succinct comparison to the soon-to-be-retired veteran, Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Like Hewitt, Kokkinakis exited Wimbledon at the first hurdle on Monday, going down 7-6 (9-7) 7-6 (7-3) 6-4 to 24th seed Leonardo Mayer.
But rather than explain away his SW19 debut defeat with reference to legitimate mitigating factors such as the recent death of his grandmother and a serious intestinal infection, the Adelaide native treated the exit as a big disappointment.
“I’d be lying if I said my preparation was ideal,” Kokkinakis conceded after the defeat, but added that, “I was pretty pissed off when I walked off the court.”
He then went on to stress that he would be giving his all alongside Hewitt in the Men’s Doubles event: “I think because it’s Wimbledon and Lleyton’s last, I will definitely be into it and give it a good crack.”
In attitudinal terms, one could hardly envisage a more fitting doubles pairing than that of Hewitt and Kokkinakis. The teenager’s response to the Mayer defeat is remarkably redolent of the fearsome determination and relentless intensity which characterised the career of Mr. Hewitt himself.
Few 19-year-olds who had seen their ranking jump from 628 in the world at the start of last year to 69 ahead of Wimbledon would review a first-round defeat against a top-30 player so harshly, particularly given that it came off the back of a run to the second round of his home grand slam and the third round of Roland Garros.
But Kokkinakis is not the kind of player who can afford to rest on his laurels.
Mind over matter
It has long been clear that the teenager’s mental strength is one of his greatest assets; the key attribute which has enabled him to out-fight and wear down technically superior opponents in high-profile matches.
We saw this, for instance, when Kokkinakis beat the 11th seed Ernests Gulbis in the first-round of the Australian Open in January or when he battled back from two sets down to dump his countryman Bernard Tomic out of Roland Garros.
Like Hewitt, Kokkinakis’ play is marked by a never-say-die attitude and a steely self-belief when it comes to playing decisive points.
Indeed, it is a testament to the Aussie’s psychological fortitude that in just two seasons as a professional Kokkinakis has already amassed a 4-1 win-loss record in five-set matches and has won nine out of 14 tie-breakers on the ATP Tour.
Mentality is thus central to Kokkinakis’ success in a manner evocative of Hewitt’s career.
For while it goes without saying both are extremely technically accomplished tennis players and consummate athletes, it has long been clear that Kokkinakis lacks the natural pedigree of Tomic and Kyrgios, and has perhaps had to grind a little bit harder to break the top-100 than his compatriots.
By that same token, Hewitt was clearly never a player in the same class as Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, nor can one persuasively claim that he matched the leaders of the next generation, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in terms of pure ability.
Nevertheless, Hewitt will retire after next season’s Australian Open with two major titles to his name, having spent most of the prime of his career in the world’s top-five, competing in the latter stages of grand slams.
In this context it is striking that the two-time Wimbledon finalist and director of player performance at Tennis Australia, Pat Rafter, drew attention to the strength of Kokkinakis’ mentality in the lead-up to Wimbledon.
“He may not have that raw, gifted talent as much as a Tomic and Kyrgios, but he’s not far off. But what he has is that he wants to be there, he wants to be a player. He loves it, he trains hard and his on-court attitude is fantastic. HisDavis Cup [performance against the Czech Republic] with Wally [Masur] was brilliant. That’s our role model. That’s our Australian tennis pin-up boy right there,” Rafter said of Kokkinakis.
Kokkinakis’ mentality provides a fine foundation from which he can build to compete for major titles, and few players have demonstrated how consistency, professionalism, determination and self-belief can often be sufficient to overcome technically superior opposition more than Hewitt.
In this context, one could do worse than to back the duo to go far into the doubles tournament over the coming week.