Thanasi Kokkinakis shakes off demons in French Open spectacular

The Aussie hopeful threw off painful memories from earlier in 2023 to overcome Stan Wawrinka at the French Open.

Thanasi Kokkinakis roars after winning match point on the left, and shakes hands with Stan Wawrinka after the match on the right.
Thanasi Kokkinakis turned in what could be a signature performance of his career, overcoming Stan Wawrinka in five sets to move on in the French Open. Pictures: Getty Images

Thanasi Kokkinakis has overcome the spectre of his heartbreaking ousting at the Australian Open earlier this year to defeat Stan Wawrinka in five sets at the French Open. The 28-year-old Aussie had to did deep against the three-time grand slam winner and former Roland Garros champion - with his stunning victory providing a pleasant wake-up call for compatriot and friend Nick Kyrgios.

In a gruelling French Open classic, Kokkinakis came up big when it mattered most in the fifth set to claim a memorable 3-6 7-5 6-3 6-7 (4-7) 6-3 victory over the Swiss champion. In doing so, he was able to banish the heartbreak of his five-set defeat at the hands of Andy Murray in Melbourne earlier in 2023.

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It has been eight years since Kokkinakis last made the third round at the French Open - his stunning debut at the clay grand slam. Nothing came easy for Kokkinakis as Wawrinka refused to go out without a fight - even staving off four match points when down 40-0 in what would prove to be the deciding game.

His close mate Kyrgios had been watching along at home, but when the match went past midnight in Australia, he decided enough was enough. “Going to bed, I don‘t want to wake up and see Kokki lose another thriller please,” he posted on Twitter.

Fortunately, Kokkinakis came through, and had an amusing response when informed that Kyrgios hadn't actually caught the end of his eventual win. Kokkinakis will face Karen Khachanov in the third round.

“Hopefully, he can wake up a bit happier now – I definitely will be,” he said. “They’re the fun ones, they’re what you play for. Against legends who make it really tough on you.

“You can’t count these guys out no matter how old they are. They just play. They get better and better, and you can see why they are multiple grand slam champions.”

Holding a two sets to one lead headed into the fourth set, Kokkinakis was forced to lift as the 2015 French Open champion continued to challenge him. He admitted that when Wawrinka won the fourth set in a tiebreaker, it was hard to forget his collapse against Murray earlier this year.

"What a match! I knew Stan's getting older but the first set-and-a-half he was playing the best tennis he could play. I was nowhere, just tried to hang in there," Kokkinakis told the crowd.

"I lost that match against Murray, I didn't want to do it against another legend.

"Having 40-0, I was like, 'oh no', you can imagine the things coming into my mind. He just never went away - but I just trusted myself, and I'm so happy."

Thanasi Kokkinakis rises to the challenge against Stan Wawrinka

It looked as if Kokkinakis also might find 38-year-old Wawrinka too hot to handle in the battle between two warriors finding fresh life in their careers after being put through the injury mill.

Wawrinka, not slowed by a five-set opening win against Albert Ramos-Vinolas, strutted into a one-set, 4-2 lead but Kokkinakis took control with his increased aggression and weight of shot. Still, the relentless Wawrinka took the fourth stanza to a tie-break, in which Kokkinakis had a shocker, dishing up five straight unforced errors.

But Kokkinakis reeled off the first four games in the decider and, even though the Swiss dug deep to earn a break-back, not even a dismal intervention from the umpire, giving the Aussie a time violation on the final match point, could derail him from moving on to the third round and a crucial rankings boost as a result.

Thanasi Kokkinakis reacts in astonishment after defeating Stan Wawrinka at the French Open.
Thanasi Kokkinakis had to give it everything he had to move into the French Open third round at the expense of Stan Wawrinka. (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

It was the perfect pick-me-up for the Aussie challenge after Storm Hunter's chance of a breakthrough triumph on the same court over Ukraine's comeback star Elina Svitolina had blown out after a dazzling start, 2-6 6-3 6-1. And Hunter's fellow Queenslander Jason Kubler also departed in the second round, beaten by the swashbuckling Italian Fabio Fognini 6-4 7-6 (7-5) 6-2.

Hunter had briefly upgraded from Storm to 'Hurricane' before her gale of winners subsided and her chance of her greatest win against the former world No.3 Svitolina was simply blown away.

"I'm definitely not deflated," said the proud Hunter, who'd completely dominated her illustrious opponent early on behind a cracking forehand that produced 11 first-stanza winners.

Out on court 6, world No.69 Kubler, the last Aussie man standing at last year's Roland Garros, found 36-year-old Fognini, who's dropped to 130 in the rankings, to be on one of his focused days as the Italian gave him a bit of a clay-court lesson.

With AAP

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