Kokkinakis keen to avoid ranking freefall, as Djokovic faces US ban

Key points

  • Novak Djokovic moves into the Adelaide International quarter-finals in straight sets.
  • The Serbian superstar rallied from 2-5 down in the first set to avoid going the distance.
  • Canada’s Denis Shapovalov is next up for Djokovic after an impressive second-round victory.

Adelaide: Thanasi Kokkinakis will start next week’s second Adelaide International tournament knowing he could tumble outside the world’s top 200 unless he can again make a deep run.

The South Australian favourite was left to rue a string of unconverted break points as he exited the opening Adelaide event in a 7-6(7-2), 6-4 second-round defeat on Thursday night to talent-rich Italian Jannik Sinner 7-6(7-2), 6-4.

“It’s pretty frustrating. Against guys like that; you’ve got to take your chances,” Kokkinakis said.

Kokkinakis needs to win some matches to avoid going into ranking freefall.Credit:Getty Images

“I feel like both times I played him I had golden opportunities to get him, but it’s a game of margins and I thought up until the tiebreaker [that] I was a better player that first set, and wasn’t able to take it.

“Then, it’s almost like he was playing with house money.”

Kokkinakis tempered expectations on tournament eve of him repeating his home city heroics from last year, when he made a semi-final before claiming his maiden ATP Tour title the next week.

An ultra-strong field led by 21-time grand slam champion Novak Djokovic meant it was always going to be hard to make a splash at The Drive this week, especially with Sinner waiting in the second round.

Many of the big stars in action at this event are not sticking around for next week, but there is still set to be seven top-30 men’s players, even with Nick Kyrgios (ankle) withdrawing.

The 250 ranking points Kokkinakis pocketed for winning last year’s title will drop off his 12-month rolling tally in two Mondays’ time, meaning he needs to win some matches to avoid going into freefall.

The 26-year-old is already guaranteed to be back outside the top 100 on Monday.

“I was aware coming into the summer my ranking could take a hit, and it might not look good on the number next to my name, but I know where my game’s at, and I know what I’m capable of,” Kokkinakis said.

“I peaked very early last year. I felt like I struggled to kind of maintain that energy and focus throughout the whole season and that’s one of my goals coming into this year.

“Even if my ranking does take a hit; I’ve got an opportunity next week, and I’ve got an opportunity at Aussie Open to give it a crack and see what happens.

“I’ve been here before with a three-digit ranking and I know I can get back there. I’ve got a lot of time for the rest of the year, where I didn’t play that much tennis, to make that ranking up and then some, so I’ve got to look big picture and as long as my game is going in the right way, the ranking should follow.”

Kokkinakis failed to convert four break points across the fifth and seventh games of the match when he largely controlled the baseline battle, only to drop serve the next game to go 5-3 down, then snatch the break straight back.

Sinner also faced 15-40 at five-all but made it to deuce with two well-constructed points – leaving Kokkinakis with only one conversion from seven break points – and began to blossom from there.

The Italian rising star breezed through the tiebreak then pounced on Kokkinakis early in the second set to break him in just the third game, an advantage he held to the finish line.

“It was a tough match, especially in the beginning with the sun and shadow and there was not a lot of rhythm, but then after I think I raised my level, especially in the tiebreaker, and I am very happy about my performance,” Sinner said.

“Trying to stay calm in every moment is very important for me and I think the first set was very tough for me to win. I got lucky sometimes, especially the first break point – I got the net – so sometimes [you need] a little bit of luck.”

Sinner is the highest-ranked player left in the bottom half of the draw but will need to get past American Seb Korda to reach the semi-finals.

‘What can I do?’: Unvaccinated Djokovic on US ban

Novak Djokovic remains willing to sit out a series of high-level tournaments in the United States, confirming on Thursday his stance on vaccination remains unchanged.

Djokovic will compete for a 10th Australian Open title this month after being deported last year, but news broke out of the US on Wednesday that the travel ban on unvaccinated non-citizens would extend until at least April 10.

Novak Djokovic overcame a slow start in Adelaide on Thursday.Credit:AP

That would rule him out of five ATP Tour events, most notably the Indian Wells and Miami Masters in March, while it is still unclear if the former world No.1 will be able to play in the US Open in late August.

“Look, if it is official, then it is. I mean, what can I do? Nothing. That’s it. You know my position. It is what it is,” Djokovic said after edging past 64th-ranked Quentin Halys 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-5).

The Age revealed on Wednesday night that Djokovic had approached Australian star Nick Kyrgios, who is yet to compete this year because of an ankle injury, about playing practice sets ahead of the Australian Open.

Kyrgios is also weighing up the possibility of joining a stellar Kooyong Classic field, including world No.1 Carlos Alcaraz, Alex de Minaur, Taylor Fritz and Andy Murray.

The Australian Open will let fans watch organised practice sessions between star players – dubbed ‘perfect practice’ – during next week’s qualifying tournament as part of a new revenue stream for the cash-strapped event, which was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are talking with the Australian Open about doing something in a week prior to the start of the tournament,” Djokovic said.

“Yes, I chatted with Nick, and I would like to play with him, and he accepted, but he wants shorter sets. Let’s see if that works out.

“I feel like most of us need matches and practice matches, and as many points that we can play prior to the Australian Open.

“I’m happy if that will be organised. We’re still not having 100 per cent confirmation, but I think most likely [it] will happen with Nick, so I’m looking forward to that.”

The Djokovic-Kyrgios relationship turned for the better in the past two years after reaching a low during the 2021 Australian Open, when the Canberran labelled him “a very strange cat” and a “tool”, while criticising his conduct during the early stages of the pandemic.

But Kyrgios was arguably the Serbian superstar’s biggest advocate last January, hitting out at his treatment on arrival in Australia before being deported.

‘I wasn’t his favourite guy – let’s take it that way – for many years. But he was one of the very few that stood by me last year.’

“I wasn’t his favourite guy – let’s take it that way – for many years. But he was one of the very few that stood by me last year, and I respect that and appreciate that,” Djokovic said.

“In those moments, you can actually see who truly supports you and who is by your side and who goes with, I guess, the flow of the society and the pressures that media put on you.

“He was giving me undivided support in the moments where I was being challenged a lot, and him as an Australian, I respected that a lot. Since then, our relationship has changed for [the] better.”

Djokovic’s bid for a second Adelaide title, to go with the one he won in 2007, moves on to the quarter-finals despite a surprise early scare and prolonged resistance from determined Frenchman Halys.

The nine-time Australian Open champion dropped his opening service game and fell 2-5 behind before bouncing back to win on his third match point in front of another pro-Djokovic crowd.

The Serbian contingent in The Drive stands seems to increase every time he plays, and they were again vocal in supporting their hero, who hailed Halys’ gutsy display.

“It was a great performance from my opponent today. I want to congratulate him for great quality tennis and a great fight … he played like a top 10-player today, no doubt,” Djokovic said.

“As far as my game goes, I feel good on the court. I didn’t have such a great start. I lost my serve early, and he was serving really well – fast, big serves, hitting his spots in the box very well.

“It’s difficult to play on this kind of court that is really fast. It kind of favours the server. It’s tough to break the serve of a big server like him today, so two tie-breaks were probably the most realistic score of today’s match, and I’m just glad to overcome a tough challenge.”

Djokovic is just one win away from doing his bit to lock in a much-anticipated semi-final against Russian star Daniil Medvedev, in what would be a rematch of the 2021 Australian Open and US Open finals.

He will first have to get past Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who earned his shot at Djokovic with a 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Roman Safiullin earlier on Thursday.

Djokovic is unbeaten in seven career clashes with Shapovalov and has conceded only two sets, but it should still be a step up for the 21-time grand slam champion, who has been more solid than outstanding in Adelaide so far.

“Denis is one of the most complete players out there,” Djokovic said.

“He’s got a very dynamic style of tennis, a big serve, he comes to the net, he is comfortable playing from the back of the court, [he’s a] great athlete, moves fantastic.

“We haven’t played for a while, so I’m looking forward to that. Every match now gets tougher, and I’m going to be ready for that.”

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