Defending champion Kokkinakis battles to thrilling first-round win

9 January 2023, by Adelaide International Tennis

Thanasi Kokkinakis has made a statement start in the defence of his Adelaide International crown, the South Australian eliminating countryman Alexei Popyrin in a first round of extreme momentum swings.

In a maiden ATP-level meeting between the two Australian players, Kokkinakis took an authoritative lead in the near three-hour encounter, with his perfect first set secured in only 25 minutes.

But the hometown favourite was severely tested when Popyrin recovered to take control in the second set and pushed Kokkinakis in a hard-fought decider.

“There’s a curse, I think. A few players feel it, almost when you win a set six-love, you know something’s bound to go bad,” said a smiling Kokkinakis, after securing an eventual 6-0 6-7(5) 7-5 victory.

With his trademark serve and a potent forehand proving especially damaging, Kokkinakis seemed on track to seamlessly add to an impressive record in Adelaide when he held two break points in the sixth game of the second set.

But as each of those openings dissolved with groundstroke errors, Popyrin grew in confidence; neither player capitalised on break point opportunities – Kokkinakis saving four, Popyrin two – as the set progressed to a tiebreak.

Three aces helped Popyrin gain the ascendancy, the younger Australian sending the match into a decider after an hour and 38 minutes.

“It was almost too smooth, so I knew there could be a tricky stage,” Kokkinakis related, rueing his missed break point opportunities.

A brief off-court break at first provided little respite for the local, who dropped serve in the opening game of the third set. Several games later, the home favourite recovered both energy and momentum; with the slightest dip from Popryin, he clawed the break back and consolidated to take a 4-3 lead.

From there, the pressure was on Popryin, especially as a more aggressive Kokkinakis dominated the rallies. As his first serve lapsed, the defending champion produced some exquisite winners that thrilled his hometown crowd.

While Kokkinakis held match point in a tense 10th game, it took another two games to secure victory. A beautiful forehand winner secured a second match point opportunity, Kokkinakis securing it on a Popyrin error.

“I was being a bit of a softy in part of that match, but I got it together… I toughed it out in the end,” Kokkinakis admitted, acknowledging a huge effort from his fellow Australian, who is also a close friend.

“Alexei was great today.I knew he was going to lift his game. We share the same agent, so we know each other pretty well,” he commented.

“We’re good mates off the court and I don’t think being competitors on the court will change that.”

The tournament doesn’t get any easier for Kokkinakis, who faces No.1 seed Andrey Rublev – a former champion in Adelaide – in the second round.

“This feels stacked, both weeks are tough,” said the South Australian, acknowledging the tough men’s field in both Adelaide tournaments.

“It’s what you want though. It’s what you want going into a Grand Slam. I want to test myself against the best, I know when I’m playing my best, my level’s right there, so it’s about sustaining it and not having any of those dips.”

Other men’s winners on the opening day of the ATP 250 tournament included No.7 seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who progressed in straight sets against Brandon Nakashima.

Miomir Kecmanovic, the tournament’s No.6 seed, overcame Brit Kyle Edmund 6-4 7-5 in 84 minutes.

Mackenzie McDonald was an upset winner over Daniel Evans, the lower-ranked American ousting the No.5 seed 6-2 7-6(3), while Jack Draper progressed  against Lorenzo Sonego, also in straight sets.