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Nadal “Back” in the Groove as Tsitsipas Battles Past the Kokk

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates after winning his men’s singles second round match against Michael Mmoh of the USA at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 11 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

By Alix Ramsay

If this is what Rafa Nadal looks like with a bad back, the rest of the field must be hoping against hope that his dodgy lower lumbar muscles don’t heal up before the tournament is over.

According to the world No.2, all is not well with those muscles. They are not as bad as they could be but they are still not right. As a result, he and his physios are trying new things every day to try and fix the problem while he is serving with a tweaked motion to protect his sore bits during matches. Anyone would think that he is ready to be carted off on a shutter. Then again, he is of the male persuasion and therefore subject to such medical emergencies as “man-flu”. He is also one of the most elite of elite athletes which increases that susceptibility 10-fold at the very least. Either that or he is just a medical miracle.

Admittedly, Michael Mmoh was never likely to cause Rafa any serious bother on Thursday night. The world No.177 is a decent enough player (and, let’s face it, how many of us can claim to be the 177th best in the world at what we do?) but he plays a different game to Rafa. Mmoh plays tennis. Rafa and his ilk don’t play tennis; they play grand slam tennis. And they are rather good at it.

Michael Mmoh of the USA in action during his second Round Men’s singles match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day 4 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 11 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

Mmoh is a true man of the world: his father, Tony, is from Nigeria and is a former ATP player; his mother, Geraldine, is from Ireland but now lives in Australia and Michael grew up in the US – and he has dual nationality holding American and Australian passports. The world is clearly his oyster unless, of course, he is playing Rafa at Melbourne Park.

But back to Rafa’s back. Despite his nagging injury, the 20-time grand slam champion took just 107 minutes to reach the third round 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. That tweaked serve landed seven aces, 16 unreturned serves, and won 84 per cent of first serve points. He hit 40 clean winners, won 94 per cent of his 16 approaches to the net and by the time it was finished, he barely looked out of breath. Imagine what the numbers would have been like if he had been fully fit.

Rafael Nadal of Spain in action during his second Round Men’s singles match against Michael Mmoh of the USA on Day 4 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 11 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

“The back is not under control, honestly,” he said. “No, I am keep doing the things that I can. If you see my motion on the serve is different than what I would like, but I am trying to find solutions every day. I just keep fighting for find a solution.

“Of course, yeah, the preparation the last 15 days have not been the ideal one, but here I am. I won two matches in straight sets. I have another opportunity to be on court in two days, and I have tomorrow to keep doing things and trying to find solutions for my back.

“We are doing everything possible to try to be better and better and still alive. So still alive, still hope to be better and to try to be competitive. Let’s see. Gonna be a good test against Norrie.”

Ah, yes: Cam Norrie. If you thought Mmoh had an interesting background, you should take a look at Norrie’s. He was born in South Africa but grew up in New Zealand. His dad is from Scotland, his mum is from Wales but he now lives in England (London, should you be wondering). And he plays Davis Cup for Great Britain. And speaks with a Kiwi twang. Oh, and he honed his game at Texas Christian University where he ended up as the No.1 college player in the US. So, Cam: pick a passport; any passport…

Anyway, this only Norrie’s 13th appearance in the main draw of a slam and this is only the second time he had reached the third round. In the past, he has put too much pressure on himself and allowed the moment get to him at the major championships. The results have not been pretty.

But at the US Open last September, he beat Diego Schwartzman in the first round, backed that up with a win over Federico Coria but then let a winnable match against Alejandro Davidovic Fokina slip away from him. Still, at least he had reached the third round even if his tendency to stage fright when he plays a lower ranked foe was still an issue (Davidovic Fokina was ranked nine places lower than Norrie on that day in New York). That, though, will not be a problem against the world No.2.

Cameron Norrie of the United Kingdom in action against Roman Safiullin of Russia in the second round of the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 11 February 2021. EPA-EFE/JASON O’BRIEN

Having grown up watching – and idolising – Rafa, Norrie booked an appointment with the living legend by beating Roman Safiullin of Russia 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6. They were on court for three hours and 31 minutes but the match took much longer than that. Starting out on a deserted outside court, they got through three sets before the rain started and kept them hanging around for another couple of hours. Allowed back to work under the roof and in front of a crowd in the Margaret Court Arena, Norrie revelled in the atmosphere and managed to hit his stride to secure the win. It was a big step forward for the world No.69.

“I think every tennis player gets nervous,” Norrie said. “I think it’s just the way they manage it. I think in the past I think I let the occasion get the better of me, but I think today was a prime example: I started the first two sets, I was playing absolutely at an awful level and couldn’t do much right. I was not really approaching well and missing some easy volleys and not really going after my serve.

“So, I think for me to turn it around and play that level like I did in the fourth set and kind of reset and do that was big for me and on a day when I wasn’t feeling as comfortable as I would like to be.

“I think it’s just how I managed it and, yeah, I think I’m just trying to build on my experiences. I have only been on the tour three or four years now, so it’s all pretty new to me still. Just trying to build from there.”

Judging by the start he has made in the first two rounds, Rafa may not give him that much time to build on Saturday. No matter; Norrie cannot wait to get his chance on the big stage with the big star: this is what dreams are made of. He has never played any of the Big Three before – and that his first experience of such a match should be against Rafa makes it all the better.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I never thought I would play against them. I was kind of watching them when I was young and thinking it would be cool to play against one of them. But I thought it was never going to happen.

“So it’s going to be unbelievable and really looking forward to it and, yeah, it’s going to be amazing. At the end of the day, it’s just another tennis match and I’m going enjoy it afterwards, and then go out there and do what I can and see what he’s got.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece celebrates after winning his second Round Men’s singles match against Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia during Day 4 of the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 11 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

Stefanos Tsitsipas knew what Thanasi Kokkinakis had – he just wasn’t expecting there to be so much of it. The world No.6 has known Kokkinakis for years and was well aware of the Australian’s talents. But while Tsitsipas had been powering his way up the rankings and establishing himself as a contender for the biggest prizes in the sport, Kokkinakis had been struggling through injury after injury. Seasons came and seasons went but still Kokkinakis could not get a clean bill of health.

On Thursday, though, he kept Tsitsipas cornered for the better part of four and a half hours until the Greek finally found a way to grab his ticket to the third round 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4. He did it, he thought, by “fighting like a lion” which was testament enough to Kokkinakis’s abilities. As for the man they call “Kokk” (they have a way with words, these Aussies), he trudged off court exhausted yet anything but beaten.

“Matches like this are the reasons why I believe I can still do it and why I have tried to come back so many times and keep giving myself a chance,” Kokkinakis said.

Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia celebrates after winning the fourth set during his second Round Men’s singles match against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece on Day 4 of the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 11 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

“He’s a hell of a player. Obviously got a bright future, and he’s top 5, 6 in the game right now.

“But, yeah, reasons like that and matches like that are why I think if I can just keep getting in better shape physically and keep being able to play matches there is no reason I can’t be where he is.

“That’s what I’m going for. I’ve got a long way to go, a lot of work to do, but I think today proved to me and a few other people that I have still got it in me. I’m going to try to use this as motivation and keep kicking forward.”

And if he can do that, there will more than the lucky few who had a ticket to Thursday’s match who will be cheering him on. The Kokk deserves his chance to show what he can do on the world stage.