EVEN as Thanasi Kokkinakis emerged from the tennis equivalent of hell in Mexico last month, he was conflicted.
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Desperate to kick-start a cruelly stalled career, Kokkinakis roared into the Los Cabos final in only his sixth tournament since resuming from a 20-month injury layoff.
Stringing together four wins in succession, the 21-year-old effectively returned from purgatory.
Not since 2015 at Indian Wells had Kokkinakis won as many matches in a row.
In the context of where Kokkinakis had spent much of the previous two years — sidelined with injury and occasionally pondering the merit of continuing — appearing in an ATP World Tour 250 was a monumental achievement.
But as much as Kokkinakis is revered as one of the fiercest competitors in world tennis, the baseliner’s ultimate motivator is the quest of perfection.
And, despite toppling classy Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-finals and reaching the championship match against Sam Querrey, Kokkinakis was uneasy.
It didn’t matter that, in the space of a week, he had resuscitated his ranking and form. There was also a decent chunk of prizemoney and restoration of reputation.
Something was missing.
“I felt as well as I did in Mexico, there were things I needed to address,” Kokkinakis said.
“I felt I beat myself in the final, not taking anything away from Sam.
“Any time I got broken that week, I had two double faults in a game … that’s why I felt I beat myself.
“I came out of that tournament feeling I needed to address some things. I wasn’t totally happy with things.”
Taking a long-range approach rather than chasing vital rankings points, Kokkinakis headed to Los Angeles and practised.
When he resumes at the US Open next week, he might reflect on how swiftly he has climbed to No 223 in the world after reappearing on the computer rankings with an unbecoming mark of No 993 in June.
More likely, he won’t.
“This year has so far been all about setting up for next year,” he said.
“The goal is 2018 and, in the short-term, to make sure I don’t over-train and to be smart in the way I go about things in practice.
“I know if I push myself, there’s a tendency to over-train and that can be counter-productive.
“I’m aware of that and so are my coaches (Todd Langman and Joel Kerley).
“It’s exciting to be back at the US Open and the goal is to get through that and then to have a healthy off-season.’
As much as the purist in Kokkinakis finds reason to quibble, his 2017 cameos include claiming scalps many players would deem career highlights.
Victory on grass over Wimbledon runner-up and world No 6 Milos Raonic gave him the biggest win of his career.
But a subsequent thrashing at the hands of Russian Daniil Medvedev plunged him into withering introspection.
It was a similar tale in Mexico after he rolled world No 14 Berdych — also an All England Club finalist — before falling to Querrey.
“It’s funny, the better the opponent, the better I play,” Kokkinakis said.
“I seem to get up and play at a higher level against those guys.
“It’s funny because I remember telling my coaches in Monte Carlo after practising with some of these guys that I wouldn’t mind playing them because I thought my level was there.
“It’s just a matter of doing it consistently.”
It was not that long ago Kokkinakis was so frustrated over shoulder and abdominal injuries he considered quitting tennis.
He is now on Lleyton Hewitt’s radar as a potential singles player for next month’s Davis Cup semi-final with Belgium.
“There’s no guarantee that I’ll play but Lleyton definitely wants me there,” he said.
“It’s gonna be great … but the main focus for me is next year and continuing to set up for that.”
Originally published as Patient Kokkinakis aims to serve up special 2018
Source: sports dailytelegraph