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Qualifiers Thanasi Kokkinakis, Denis Kudla star in Miami Open's Best Picture
The pair played a near-cinematic thriller on Oscar night as the resurgent Aussie edged into the fourth round at the Hard Rock Stadium.
Published Mar 28, 2022
WATCH: Kokkinakis has enjoyed a dream start to his 2022 season, including a first title and Australian Open men's doubles victory with childhood friend Nick Kyrgios.
This being Oscar night, let’s apply a quote from Hollywood to tennis. The emissary from Hollywood was Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman. Addressing what makes for cinematic success, Goldman issued a proclamation that’s earned nods for decades: “nobody knows anything.”
Perhaps the same holds true when it comes to sorting out the differences between tennis players ranked inside the Top 100. This evening, exhibit number infinity came in the form of a highly competitive third round match at the Miami Open between a pair of qualifiers, 97th-ranked Thanasi Kokkinakis and 84th-ranked Denis Kudla. In a match won by Kokkinakis, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), these two revealed much of the power, proficiency and tenacity that has always defined world class tennis. And if you think from seeing these two you can provide a deep analysis of what separates them from those inside the Top 50 or 40 or 30 or 20 or 10, I’ll devour every word.
Might the difference have less to do with each player’s skill and more to do with narrative bandwidth? Kudla versus Kokkinakis happened on a Sunday night, that fatigued transitional moment of fading sunshine into darkness, when the weekend tumbles and slumbers its way toward Monday morning. Twelve minutes past 7:00 p.m., Kokkinakis and Kudla commenced play on Butch Buchholz, the tournament’s fourth show court. Just prior, the 1,564-seat stadium had been the site for a compelling tale. Last year’s finalist, ascending Jannik Sinner, had erased five match points to take down the gritty Spaniard, Pablo Carreño Busta. This was the kind of story tennis aficionados thrill for: youth, overcoming experience. The opposite might well have been of interest too.
Now, it was Kokkinakis and Kudla’s turn to tell a story in front of stadium that was less than half-filled. But what would it be and how would it fit into other stories still in progress? Across the grounds, the Stadium Court featured newly minted world number one Iga Swiatek. The Grandstand showed off the perpetually entertaining Gaël Monfils, dismantled by Francisco Cerundolo. Later on, inside the Stadium Court, there’d be a battle between second-seeded Alexander Zverev and last year’s ATP Comeback Player of the Year, Mackenzie McDonald.
But what about Kokkinakis and Kudla? There was a major backstory for Kokkinakis, half a decade of physical agony; shoulder, pectoral, groin, knee and elbow injuries, glandular fever, massive weight loss. Twelve months ago, he’d been ranked No. 243. But in January, in Adelaide, Kokkinakis had won his first career singles title, a run highlighted by wins over John Isner and Marin Cilic. Also, alongside his compatriot for many years, Nick Kyrgios, Kokkinakis had won the Australian Open doubles title. So as Kokkinakis at last was healthy enough to play regularly, there was a deep appreciation merely for him being in the present—and the enchanting premise that his future could be even brighter.
Kudla was the answer to another question, one I’ve often asked ex-pros: Once you become aware that you’re probably not going to win Wimbledon, or even crack the Top 20, what drives you to continue competing? It’s one thing to hear pros who’ve been ranked 20 to 50 answer this, but Kudla—career-high ranking of No. 53, back in 2016—has spent many years in that difficult shuttle between ATP and Challenger events. To paraphrase those many ex-pros, Kudla plays because he’s good at tennis and because he likes it. Over the last year he’s played a mind-bending 36 tournaments. Does a scientist quit once he’s pretty sure he won’t win a Nobel prize?
Over the course of two hours and 45 minutes, these two played as tightly competitive a match as you’re likely to see. In the spirit of contemporary tennis, there were sharply topspin forehands, crosscourt, inside-out, inside-in. There were crisp backhands, rolled and ripped crosscourt, laced down-the-line. There were powerful serves, each delivery often exceeding 120 mph. And yes, there were several deftly struck volleys, including a dazzling three-volley sequence by Kudla in the decisive tiebreaker.
One tidbit on Kudla is that his forehand is the side that betrays him under pressure. So when he served at 5-6 in the opening set and flagged on three consecutive points, there appeared the evidence to refute Goldman’s premise. See, we do know something: Kudla’s forehand, that’s what’s kept him from greater heights. But then Kudla fought off three set points in a row, including one with a forehand winner. Added data came when Kudla snapped up the second set with a crisp, deep forehand return that rocked Kokkinakis on his heels and elicited an error.
In the end, three points and just about that many inches made the difference. Serving at 4-all in the third-set tiebreaker, Kudla rifled a backhand down-the-line that was likely untouchable—and barely missed. Serving at 5-4, Kokkinakis fired a wide ace—that was called a let. No problem: Same serve, same ace, no let. Next, a long Kudla forehand. At least in an NBA game, the swift cruel ending is shared with teammates.
Though the 25-year-old Kokkinakis is only four years younger than Kudla, his long absence from the tour gives off the impression of the kind of youthful hopefulness tennis folk are often drawn to. How much further might Kokkinakis rise up the ranks? After all, earlier in Miami, he beat former top tenner Richard Gasquet and 13th-seeded Diego Schwartzman. View tennis as a series of potential outcomes, and one wonders if this tournament might be the start of the blossoming long expected from Kokkinakis.
And now I will circle back: Why need there be that kind of dialogue? Must we treat an athlete like a stock? Hasn’t someone who’s already reached this stage blossomed pretty darn well? Or is our attachment to tennis predicated only on those in ascent—Sinner, Swiatek, tonight Kokkinakis? How fair is that to the stories and journeys of each of these players? Years from now, a child who was at this evening’s match will recall all the skill and drama he or she witnessed. One day, and this day may never come, I would enjoy the chance to hear about Denis Kudla’s journey, about how it was to play the vast majority of his matches in secondary stadiums, in front of small crowds, all the while able to strike the ball brilliantly and fight just as valiantly. History isn’t just written by the winners. It’s made by the players.
Roll the credits, please.