There are certain rites of passage that all teenagers must go through: first pint, first hangover, first date, first kiss, first… anyway, there is a lot of growing up to do. For most sportsmen, though, their first great moments tend to take place in the full glare of the spotlight as the young rookie is shoved into a major arena to face a superstar of the game. Usually, it can only end in tears.
But Thanasi Kokkinakis is not a usual teenager. Blessed with talent – lots of it – he is also has a good head on his shoulders. Oh, sure enough, he lost to Rafa Nadal 6-2 6-4 6-2 in a little under two hours on Thursday, but there was never a sense that the 17-year-old was overwhelmed by the occasion or intimidated by the opposition. Quite the opposite, in fact. Australia’s great young hope not only revelled in the moment but he fought, he tried to think his way out tight spots and he never gave up.
This was not the belt-it-and-hope performance (often followed by the second and third-set nose dive) that is so typical of the young, star-struck lad or lass playing their first big match. Kokkinakis may have taken a pasting from Nadal, but he kept fighting until the end. The simple fact of the matter was that at just 17 years of age, trying to bridge a gap of 569 ranking places between himself and the world No.1 was just a bit too much. After all, he only made his debut on the main tour a couple of weeks ago in Brisbane – and lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the first round – so he is still pretty new to this business.
“I really think he has a fantastic future,” Nadal said, sounding genuinely impressed. “He has a great serve, he has a great forehand. He has all the ingredients to be a top player.”
And Nadal should know. As one of the best players the sport has ever seen, he knows true talent when he sees it. And when that talent is as young and inexperienced as Kokkinakis, he knows exactly how to get the job done. There were moments when Australia’s great hope could only shake his head in disbelief at the sheer power and weight of the shots that were coming at him.
Apart from a spell in the second set when Nadal’s timing was a little off and the errors sprayed from his racquet, the top seed did everything that was expected of him. He overpowered his lanky, teenage rival and he applied the pressure at just the right moments to secure the most straight-forward of wins.
A break at the start of all three sets left Kokkinakis playing catch up for all but the first two games of the match, and much as he tried not to let Nadal out of his sights, he was powerless to stop the former Melbourne champion from racing into the third round. Nadal will meet either Gael Monfils or Jack Sock next.
Kokkinakis, meanwhile, is heading for Australia’s Davis Cup tie in France. He may be a bit too young and a bit too green to be a full member of the squad, but Pat Rafter, the captain, and Josh Eagle, the coach, want him to come along and soak up the experience. Clearly they think they have a genuine talent on their hands – and after Thursday’s efforts, Nadal tends to agree with them.