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The Wild (Card) Boys: Thanasi Kokkinakis, Nick Kyrgios power into first Grand Slam final at Australian Open
Kokkinakis and Kyrgios have brought the buzz at Melbourne Park. Is it a one-off, or does tennis have a tumultuous new show?
Published Jan 28, 2022
WATCH: Tennis Channel Live discusses the Kokkinakis-Kyrgios doubles phenomenon.
It didn’t take long for Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos to get an idea of what was in store for them in Rod Laver Arena Thursday afternoon. When the Spaniard and the Argentine walked in to face Australia’s Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, the seats were mostly full, a rarity for any doubles match, even a Grand Slam semifinal. The fans were already buzzing: chanting, ooohing, aaahing, and Aussie-Aussie-Aussie-oy-oy-oying. Then, in the opening game, Kyrgios celebrated a point-winning lob by charging up to the net, pumping his arm, and maxing out the decibel level in the stadium.
This is what’s known now as the Special K experience Down Under. Kokkinakis, ranked No. 103, and Kyrgios, ranked No. 115, were given wild cards into the tournament, and they’ve made the most of them. Now, after their sometimes-tumultuous two-set win over Granollers and Zeballos, they’ve reached their first major final. While they haven’t appeared on U.S. TV much, they’ve been front-page news in Australia. A broadcaster at Channel 9 called their run, and the atmosphere surrounding their matches, a “revolution in world tennis.” The network chose to air one of their matches over the men’s singles quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Denis Shapovalov.
“We’re locked in,” Kyrgios said. “It’s the best doubles we’ve played together.”
But it isn’t their forehands and backhands, per se, that have grabbed people’s attention. From the start of the tournament, Kyrgios has talked about the need for tennis to reach new and younger fans; to embrace their noise and enthusiasm, rather than suppress it; to leave the sport’s polite traditions behind. And the Kyrgios-Kokkinakis matches have delivered that impolite energy. The fans cheer their opponents’ double faults and missed first serves, and greet their errant service tosses with a mocking “whoa” sound. Overall, you get the powder-key vibe that comes with every Kyrgios match, mixed with the Davis Cup feel that comes with seeing two countrymen team up in front of their home fans.
My goal is to only bring new fans that may not be following tennis to watch tennis. If they flick on a match and they have Thanasi and I playing in an entertaining doubles match, they know nothing about tennis, if they watch that match just then, they probably would tune in next time. Nick Kyrgios
“I think the Australian Open, for the sport, we need more attention, we need more viewers,” Kyrgios said. “My goal is to only bring new fans that may not be following tennis to watch tennis. If they flick on a match and they have Thanasi and I playing in an entertaining doubles match, they know nothing about tennis, if they watch that match just then, they probably would tune in next time.”
Kyrgios had never been past the third round in doubles at a Slam before, but he theoretically should thrive in the format. It rewards shotmaking—which he has never lacked—and doesn’t require as much patience or consistency as singles. He loves to jabber during matches; with a friend on court with him, he has someone to jabber to.
As Kokkinakis said, “I think having us to feed off each other, we can just talk rubbish in between points, look at our box, we have a comedian in the box so we talk rubbish to him as well. Yeah, we just have fun out there.”
But Nick is still Nick, whether he has someone by his side or not. And while he wants more fan engagement, he doesn’t want it when he’s trying to hold serve. At a crucial stage on Thursday, someone in the crowd apparently made a noise as Kyrgios went to hit a ball. A minute later, after he was broken, he smashed his racquet, gave the fan in question the finger, and let out a stream of profanities on the changeover.
Unlike in singles, though, Kyrgios didn’t let his rage linger. Fist-bumping with Kokkinakis in the next game got him back into the flow of the match.
How do the Aussies’ opponents in Melbourne feel about all this? Zeballos and Granollers didn’t seem to have any complaints, but Michael Venus, who, with Tim Pütz, lost to Kyrgios and Kokkinakis in the quarters, sounded less than thrilled. If Kyrgios is leading a tennis revolution, you can count the New Zealander out.
“At end of the day he’s just an absolute knob,” Venus told New Zealand’s 1News. “His maturity level, it’s probably being generous to about a 10-year-old, to say that it’s at about that level.”
In the final on Saturday, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis will face two of their countrymen, Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell, which means the fan support likely won’t be so one-sided. As far as the future goes, the Ks aren’t sure how often they’ll team up this year. After the Australian swing in 2021, Kyrgios didn’t play again until Wimbledon, and Kokkinakis spent most of the season on the Challenger circuit. If they keep their act going, there will surely be blow-ups and controversies and F-bombs and more comments like Venus’. But there will also be fans, and that powder-keg vibe, wherever they play, and that’s not a bad thing for tennis.
“You’re always trying to develop a sport and grow a sport,” Kokkinakis said. “Of course, you got to keep it within the boundaries. If people are so narrow-minded they can't see this is bringing a lot of fans and a lot of eyes, I think that is their problem honestly.”