Australian Open: Thanasi Kokkinakis prevails over Ernests Gulbis in five-setter

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Star-in-the-making Thanasi Kokkinakis says he is ready to embrace the expectation that will come with his thrilling five-set upset over No.11 seed Ernests Gulbis.

As success-starved Australian tennis fans hailed the triumph as validation of his rising reputation, Kokkinakis said he was “excited” by the hype set to surround him heading into a winnable second round match-up against fellow Australian Sam Groth.

“I know it was a good win. There’s more to come,” the 18-year-old said after the match that lasted for four hours and seven minutes.

“I don’t want to win just one round. Obviously it was my best win yet, he said. I’m not putting a limit on myself. I beat a guy that made the semis of the French [Open]. He probably wasn’t in his best form tonight.

“He’s beaten some good players before and I’ve beaten him, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Reflecting on the biggest win off his career – his first five-set slog and just his second win at the Australian Open – an exhausted Kokkinakis said he felt “a lot better” than he did last year after he beat Igor Sijsling (then ranked No.73 in the world) in his Open debut to advance to the second round.

Kokkinakis saved four match points in the fourth set and then held his nerve in a tense climax to steal the show on opening night at Melbourne Park, winning 5-7, 6-0, 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 8-6 on Monday night.

With attention centred on fellow Australian young gun Nick Kyrgios, world No.147 Kokkinakis thrived playing off-Broadway on show court three to produce a coming-of-age performance that the likes of Australian great Todd Woodbridge — had predicted just days ago that he was set to produce.

Kokkinakis, the other half of Australia’s talented “Special K” duo, collapsed to the ground in jubilation after winning the second of two match points and then relished a lap of honour with the fans.

His love affair with the pro-Australian crowd was in sharp contrast to that of his opponent, world No.13 Gulbis, who seemed to be distracted by the spectators at times — at one point telling them to “shut up”.

The umpire directed security to certain members of the crowd after the Latvian complained.

Gulbis, known for his combustible nature on the court, had several opportunities to address the crowd’s behaviour and its impact on the match in his post-match press conference, but avoided making a comment on each occasion.

“I lost, he won,” he said. “I had no problem with the crowd.”

Gulbis also refused to blame a persistent shoulder injury for his early exit, pointing more to the lack of matches during an interrupted preparation.

A full house had earlier lived every shot as Kokkinakis fought back from trailing two sets to one.

In a final set that lasted 84 minutes, Kokkinakis exposed weaknesses’ in his opponent’s technique and showed poise beyond his years, fending off break points at 4-4 and 6-6.

In saving one break point at 6-6, Kokkinakis correctly challenged a call of “out” that the replay showed had scraped the baseline by just millimetres.

“I showed I can match it,” Kokkinakis said. “A lot of matches last year I was winning a set against these good players but never able to finish the match through.

“So I’m really happy with how I stuck together, even though I thought for periods I wasn’t playing my best tennis. I was able to find a way to get the points and the games that I needed.

“The crowd was unbelievable all night. They got me through again.”

Kokkinakis said another key element to his game was “trusting his weapons” when the pressure was on in big points.

“On the match points… I just went with what I work on every day, what my favourite shots are, so I went for a few forehands which were maybe were a bit of luck,” he said.

“I like to think they were a bit of skill, too. Maybe they were a bit of both.”