Thanasi Kokkinakis refers often to the carefully-typed yet well-worn sheet of paper. For most 17-year-olds it would be a homework assignment, maybe some revision for an upcoming exam. But Kokkinakis is not most 17-year-olds, and these notes contain questions for an interview he’s conducting with Rafael Nadal.
There’s not a sign of nerves when the kid from South Australia is side-by-side with the record-breaking world No.1, who smiles his way through Kokkinakis’ routine enquiries before a small but enraptured audience at an invitation-only function for their racquet sponsor, Babolat.
Centre stage, loving the attention and living a dream that wouldn’t even occur to most people his age. Kokkinakis has already showing he thrives in the spotlight when he delivers the punch line: “Rafa, if we both win our first round Australian Open matches, we’ll play each other. Will you be nervous?”
The audience bursts into laughter. So too does Nadal, who takes a few moments to respond. “Always nervous!” says the Spaniard, still chortling.
Nadal’s good-natured response highlights the qualities that are quickly making Kokkinakis and his close mate Nick Kyrgios two of the most popular teenagers at Australian Open 2014 – especially after each recorded hard-fought first-round wins that gave the local fans plenty to cheer about.
If they’re brash, maybe even a bit cocky, Kokkinakis and Kyrgios have earned the right to be. And the swagger is more excusable when they somehow manage to maintain some typically normal teenager qualities while they’re delivering it.
Kyrgios, who defeated Kokkinakis to become the Australian boys’ champion at Australian Open 2013, is coming off a year in which he became one of an elite group to win a Challenger title before his 18th birthday, defeated a top-50 player on his Grand Slam debut and, while climbing all the way to world No.1 in the world junior rankings, rose more than 600 places in his senior one.
Yet even as he’s grouped among the game’s biggest names – last week, Kyrgios joined Ana Ivanovic and Stanislas Wawrinka to launch the new Yonex range – the 18-year-old shows his understanding of the pecking order.
After qualifying for the US Open last year, he found himself side-by-side with Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro in the locker-room. “It was awesome being next to them,” the big-server from Canberra laughs when asked about that experience. “I didn’t say too much to them. I just admired them and took notice of what they do.”
And despite being such a natural as he interviews Nadal in that sponsor setting, Kokkinakis also knows he’s not quite one of the big guys yet. In his post-match press conference on Tuesday, the smiling South Australian acted like he couldn’t quite believe he was there.
“Thanks for asking the questions,” Kokkinakis joked with the media; when told he might soon be sick of them, he added: “I’m waiting for that day. I need to get better first.”
If there’s an air of ‘let’s next not take this all too seriously yet’ from Australia’s Generation Next, there’s a more noticeable tendency for them to shine on the big stages. It showed as each made their Australian Open main draw debuts on Tuesday, Krygios dispatching a higher-ranked and vastly more experienced opponent in Benjamin Becker, and Kokkinakis playing through cramp to defeat Igor Sijsling in four tough sets.
Having used the crowd to spur them on, each enjoyed the chance to engage with them. Krygios chatted with the crowd, threw them his towel and other mementoes, even offered some bananas.
For Kokkinakis, there was an almost-accidental double victory lap, which has since been watched over and over online by his growing fan base. “I had a fair few of my close mates all around. I was trying to pick them out,” he explained. “When I kind of high-fived my mates, everyone else had their hand out, so I went around with it. It was good fun.”
He didn’t stay for the victory lap, but Kyrgios was one of those mates watching Kokkinakis tough out the fourth set. Combined with the rise of Jordan Thompson, who pushed 20th seed Jerzy Janowicz in the first round, there’s a sense of success breeding success in the young Australian ranks.
“A lot of people are saying the next generation is coming through,” Kyrgios agrees. “It's pretty exciting for us; a bit of expectation and pressure. But we're all a pretty close bunch. We're pushing each other on.”
It’s true for their tennis, and even truer for a character that neither young Australian is afraid to show. Just ask Rafa.