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Murray v Kokkinakis: opportunity knocks at AO 2023

  • Ravi Ubha

The year Andy Murray made his Grand Slam debut, 2005, also marked the last time a men’s champion saved a match point en route to the Australian Open crown. 

It happened to be Marat Safin, who possessed a whopping backhand like Murray and a similar on-court persona. 

Murray winning the AO 2023 title remains a tall order but would cap an inspiring comeback from hip resurfacing — not to mention help cast aside memories of falling short in five finals.

HONOUR ROLL: Australian Open men's singles

He was in severe danger on the match point he faced against Matteo Berrettini on Tuesday, too. 

At Berrettini’s mercy after the Italian chased down a Murray drop shot that went wrong, last year’s semifinalist sent his backhand into the net with his foe completely stranded. 

Moments later, the 35-year-old had advanced in a fifth-set tiebreak, preserving his streak of not losing a match from two sets up since the first five-setter he ever contested in 2005 at Wimbledon. 

“I think I did very well to hang in at the end, because it could have got away from me with the way that he was serving and the way he was playing,” Murray said.

Murray confronts another mammoth server in the second round Thursday night in Thanasi Kokkinakis, who unfortunately also knows a thing or two about injuries. 

The shoulder and chest are only a few of the body parts to have suffered and the gregarious Adelaide native even contracted glandular fever in 2020. 

“Andy is someone I respect a great amount,” Kokkinakis, 26, said on Wednesday, after needing about five minutes to complete a rain-interrupted victory over Berrettini’s compatriot, Fabio Fognini.

“Obviously he has been at the top of the game, and he can relate a little bit with the injury side of things. I missed a fair few years, and so has he, especially recently.

“He was someone when I came onto tour that was always willing to give some advice.”

Even as recently as last August, when Murray seemed to give Kokkinakis some backhand pointers in Winston-Salem ahead of the US Open.

When a three-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 1 offers counsel, who wouldn’t listen? 

Murray bids to reach the third round in Melbourne for the first time since 2017 after a fruitful training block in Florida with his influential coach and twice Australian Open winner, Ivan Lendl. 

The feat might pale in comparison to his past exploits but when Murray fell in five sets to Roberto Bautista Agut at the opening stage in 2019, it seemed to mark his Melbourne farewell.

Hunger to keep his career going prevented a goodbye — and tennis fans are the happier for it.

“There's certainly a lot of people who questioned me and my ability, whether I could, yeah, still perform at the biggest events and the biggest matches,” said Murray. “I felt very proud of myself after the match. That's not something that I generally felt over the years at the end of the tennis matches.

“I think I'm proud of the work that I put in the last few months. I trained really, really hard over in Florida getting ready to play here.”

Yet Murray knows that regrouping at his age with his recent injury history won’t be simple. 

“It's obviously not that easy to recover from a four-hour, 45-minute match,” said Murray. “But I have put myself in the best chance to be able to do that with the training and stuff that I've done the last few months.

“I wouldn't expect myself to feel perfect, but hopefully I'll be in a good place.”

In his peak years, Murray fared well against potent servers. He cruised past Kokkinakis in their lone tussle in the Davis Cup semifinals in 2015, the season Kokkinakis achieved a career-high ranking of 69.

DRAW: AO 2023 men's singles

ORDER OF PLAY: Day 4 at the Australian Open

On that day in Glasgow, Murray won 93 percent of his first-serve points and Kokkinakis tallied a mere 21 percent of his second-serve points. Murray saw plenty of second serves, since Kokkinakis’ first-serve percentage sagged at 50. 

But even if he is ranked 159 currently, Kokkinakis could be in a better place to achieve his goal of going deep at a major. He has never made the third round at his home major.

The euphoria of bagging a title at home on the eve of AO 2022 was too much for him to overcome, and Kokkinakis exited in the first round. 

This season, he has had more time to acclimatise, breezing past Fognini in under two hours and able to fully focus on singles after good mate Nick Kyrgios’ knee injury prevented a defence of their doubles title.

“I watched a fair bit of his match against Berrettini, and he played great,” said Kokkinakis, the 2013 junior runner-up to Kyrgios.

“He is looking in good shape. I practiced with him a fair bit recently. He may have lost a little bit, but his anticipation is just as good as ever, and he can still play at the top of the best of them.

“I'm going to be ready for the best version of Murray, and, yeah, I'm going to go out there and play my game, play aggressive, and hopefully come out best.”