John Millman on playing tennis during COVID


That John Millman has to think whether he had ever played Thanasi Kokkinakis – his compatriot and opponent in tonight’s opening round of the ATP Adelaide International – is a sign perhaps of the overwhelming intensity of the past two years.

“I was thinking we’d played in juniors or something,” says Millman of their sole encounter at a tiny tournament 10 years back when Kokkinakis, then just 15, succumbed in two sets.

Fans of the Queenslander, and there are many within the game and out, need not worry. At 32-years-old, Millman is not losing his marbles, far from it.

“It’s really difficult to paint a picture of how hard it was to be an Australian playing tennis for the last 18 months. Last year was an 11-month trip, you’re away from your loved ones and most of the time you are in a tournament bubble,” he says.

“The Aussies who went overseas and coped did a hell of an effort. I’m pretty proud of keeping my ranking (currently 72) so I could get into the main draw of a tournament like this.”

‘Everyone knows Thanasi’s talent’

Tonight will be far from easy with a beefed-up Kokkinakis, seven years his junior and turning out in front of his home crowd, and the even more muscular American Frances Tiafoe waiting in round two.

Not that Millman is about to play mind games. He looks for positives in everyone without ever indulging in the saccharine.

“Everyone knows Thanasi’s talent level and it’s good to see him get through a season last year. I think he is probably a better player in Australia, he loves the energy of the Australia crowd.

“You have seen him play some great Australian Open matches like last year with (Stefanos) Tsitsipas. He likes playing the big tournaments, coming home and playing the Adelaide 250.

“I think it’s cool when Aussies get to play each other on these big stages because it’s a pure representation of Australian tennis. I hit with Thanasi a fair bit leading into the AO last year because I escaped Queensland. They closed the borders so I got to Victoria and we had a couple of really good sessions. I do know his ability for sure.”

John Millman after winning against Roger Federer at the US Open in 2018. Photo: AAP

Fond SA memories

Millman has recent history on his side in South Australia, his two epic Davis Cup singles matches there against Brazil in March 2020 a career highlight although the occasion is seared upon his memory for another, and bigger, reason.

After celebrating his victories, Millman jetted to California on the cusp of COVID for the tour’s annual ‘fifth major’ at Indian Wells. His exit was sooner than anticipated: A hotel check-in and nine holes of golf later and he was told the tournament was about to be cancelled.

Tennis globally ground to an instant halt for about five months, but the memory of Adelaide and two special winning matches held firm.

“COVID wasn’t a thing at the Davis Cup, so to have my last memory representing my country and having two special matches was a nice motivation to get me through,” Millman says.

“When you have fond memories of a place you are kind of drawn back there.”

Finally injury-free

A bad back and bone bruising respectively derailed his last two majors in 2021, but he is now injury-free and looking to rise in the rankings towards his peak of 33 in 2018.

“Do I believe I can go on a deep run at a slam? I do, things have to work out, draws have to be in your favour and you need a bit of luck. I still think I can turn it on, we’ll see in a couple of weeks.”

Which begs the question of his favourite match ever. A defeat of Roger Federer on a muggy New York night at the 2018 US Open would, you’d think, take some beating.

There was also his agonising Friday night loss to the Swiss two years ago at the Australian Open when he was just two points from victory in a super tie-break.

The answer is revealing.

“It was second round in the Australian Open, 2016. I was playing on show-court three against Gilles Muller and Gilles had got me the last few times we’d played. It’s still to this day the best atmosphere I have played in,” he says.

“I was down a set and managed to get up 2-1. He pulls back to 2-2 and we were trading blows all the way to 6-5 in the fifth. I remember sitting down and the crowd was fully engaged.

“It doesn’t happen all the time when the crowd is fully locked in and it feels like they are playing every point with you. You can feel the tension in the air and I felt it then.

“It wasn’t the relief it can be when you finish a match. It was a feeling of excitement and you don’t get that all the time.”

Millman thinks an Australian Open without the big-name players will still excite the fans. Photo: AAP

More to tennis than big-name players

It’s this focus away from the big-name players that leads Millman to refute Nick Kyrgios’ claims that this year’s Open will fall flat if Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all fail to show.

“Those top players have done a lot for the game but they won’t be around for ever,” Millman says.

“When I was growing up I remember Pat Rafter battling it out with (Pete) Sampras and (Andre) Agassi and people probably asked the same questions.

Tennis is continually evolving with a new champion always in the ranks, he says.

“I was lucky enough to play in Russia last year and they are excited about tennis right now. It comes in waves and when our top boys aren’t playing I have no doubt there are champions ready in waiting to take the world by storm.”

As to be expected for a man who has the Olympic rings tattooed under his right arm (a nod to his participation in the Rio Games), the affiliation for all things Australia is widespread. Which includes cricket and slugging it out with batsman Marnus Labuschagne.

“I would go down and hit with Marnus during COVID lockdown,” says Millman.

“He loves his tennis, he is mad keen, Steve Smith loves his tennis, Ussie (Khawaja) plays a bit too.”

The switch of codes is not reciprocated however, a confession that comes with trademark honesty.

“I don’t play cricket, not that well. If you start off playing tennis, it’s a bit difficult with cricket as everything is across the body. I didn’t keep the straightest of straight bats.”

We’ve Already Come Too Far To End This Now.

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Get notified about new articles