MELBOURNE – A Greek tragedy threatened to befall Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open on Thursday (Feb 11) before the fifth seed steadied to fend off local wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 and reach the third round.
The day after Nick Kyrgios sent John Cain Arena into delirium with a thrilling comeback, 267th-ranked Greek-Australian Kokkinakis appeared set for the boilover of the tournament when he threaded a backhand down the line to send the match into a fifth set.
It was not to be, though, as Tsitsipas captured the decisive break in the fifth game and held on grimly to close out an epic after four hours and 32 minutes in the steamy twilight at Rod Laver Arena.
The only player from Greece to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, Tsitsipas paid tribute to his friend Kokkinakis, who celebrated his first Australian Open win in six years on Tuesday after battling injuries and illness.
“Thanasi is a great competitor and a great fighter. As you saw it was very difficult facing him today,” the 22-year-old said on court.
“I just want to go for a nice bath right now, that’s all I’m thinking.”
Tsitsipas set Melbourne’s huge Greek community alight two years ago when he shocked Roger Federer on the way to the semi-finals at the Grand Slam.
There was little love for him from the Rod Laver Arena crowd on Thursday, however, with fans firmly behind Adelaide-born Kokkinakis, the son of Greek immigrants.
With no apparent sponsorship from apparel giants, Kokkinakis caused a stir when he wore a black, A$6 (S$6.16) Kmart T-shirt from a local shopping mall in his first-round match.
Against Tsitsipas, he wore a crisp white T-shirt but had a small logo stitched onto the sleeves, having picked up an endorsement deal from a workplace safety firm.
The company got its money’s worth as Kokkinakis took the first set, with Tsitsipas serving up a double-fault on set point.
Tsitsipas knuckled down in the next two sets and was cruising to victory with a break in the fourth before Kokkinakis rallied and closed out a thrilling tiebreak with an exquisite backhand passing shot.
In the end, Tsitsipas survived to set up a third round clash with Swede Mikael Ymer.
“Despite the difficulty of the match today I really enjoyed being out here and competing and showing the world a really high quality of tennis,” said Tsitsipas, who never dropped serve against the Australian.
Kokkinakis and his cheap T-shirt left the court to a huge ovation, and the hope of bigger things to come.