They had played six times before and had won three matches apiece. And the contest that stood out was their first, right here at Wimbledon in 2014, when the unconventional 19-year-old burst through his first ever main draw at The Championships to the quarter-finals, beating Nadal in the fourth round in a blistering three hours that could not fail to catch the eye of tennis fans.
It made him the first teenager to beat a world No1 at a Major since Nadal had beaten Roger Federer at the 2005 French Open.
And his combination of firepower, variety, touch, creativity and showbiz flair went on to discombobulate the very best.
He has beaten Novak Djokovic in both their matches. And he scored a memorable win over Roger Federer in their first meeting at the Madrid Masters in a three set, three-tie-break thriller—and subsequently came within a final tie-break of doing the same in both Stuttgart and Miami.
Yet predictions that here was a future Major champion in the making proved premature. For the intervening years have seen the Australian seesaw between superb performances and shocking ones. For every brilliant contest with Federer, he has played a bad-tempered or poor-effort match against someone else. When he is inspired, he is brilliant, when he is bored, he picks arguments with anyone who will listen, from fans to umpires and line-judges.
Indeed, he has reached just one other Major quarter-final, in Australian in 2015. He has won five titles, and reached a career-high 13 in the year he won three of them, 2016, but was as low as 72 earlier this season, and came to Wimbledon ranked 43.
As recently as the Rome Masters, he was defaulted for his behaviour: swearing at all and sundry and throwing a chair onto the court could lead to only one conclusion
And while some fans now treat it as a sport to provoke him, he too seems to find it a sport to provoke fellow players. Take the podcast he did with Ben Rothenberg after that Rome incident.
Of Djokovic, he said:
“I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked. He just wants to be like Roger… He’s an unbelievable player, he’s a champion of the sport; one of the greatest we’ll ever see.
“He probably will get the grand slam count, I reckon he will overpass Federer. (But) No matter how many grand slams he wins, he will never be the greatest for me. Simply because, I’ve played him twice and like, I’m sorry, but if you can’t beat me, you’re not the greatest of all time. Because if you look at my day-to-day routine and how much I train and how much I put in, it’s zero compared to him.”
And about Nadal in the same podcast:
“He’s my polar opposite, like literally my polar opposite. And he’s super salty… Every time I’ve beaten him … when he wins, it’s fine. He won’t say anything bad, he’ll credit the opponent, ‘He was a great player’… But as soon as I beat him, it’s just like, ‘He has no respect for me, my fans and no respect to the game’.
Naturally, given his relaxed attitude to speaking his mind about fellow players, he was probed by the media after setting the highly-anticipated Nadal meet. He would not be drawn, other than to admit that he was unlikely to share a beer with Nadal at the Wimbledon local:
“I don’t know him at all. I know him as a tennis player. I just don’t know him very well… I mean, we have a mutual respect, but that’s about it I think.”
Then he added:
“I’m never going to change. I used to be like this when I played under 12s, 14s. I just go out there, have fun, play the game how I want it to be played. At the end of the day, I know people are going to watch. Like, they can say the way I play isn’t right or he’s classless for the sport, all that sort of stuff. They’re probably still going to be there watching.”
He is entirely right, of course. Kyrgios is box office, for his style of play and his personality, and when he plays well, he plays like nobody else.
Nadal, of course, was up for this match, too, and it was obvious from the first that he wanted to make a point—not just because of that first Wimbledon match, nor the comments in May, but because Kyrgios had got the last word in their last match, too: a three-hour thriller decided in a 7-6(6) final tie-break.
They shared the first two sets, 6-3, 3-6, with both men already cranking up the rallies and the pointed stares. And there were enough big forehands, lobs, and even under-arm serves, to get the fans engaged immediately.
Kyrgios complained about the time Nadal took between sets, between games and between points, but was particularly disturbed by the Spaniard’s obsessive-compulsive processes during the Australian’s service games. Protocol usually suggests that the receiver plays to the server’s rhythm, and Kyrgios is one of the fastest players in service preparation. But Nadal will not be hurried by anyone, and it cranked up the tension.
Sometimes it spurred Kyrgios to greater intensity and concentration, sometimes it had the opposite effect. But there was no doubting his commitment to this contest, as he pulled off big serves—he would make 29 aces amid some great percentages—and created crowd thrilling volley angles—he made 26 points from 44 net plays.
Indeed his level of play was remarkably high, with 58 winners to just 27 errors, and he put in almost identical running distances through the match as the bristling, super-fit, never-say-die Nadal.
But such is the focus of the Spaniard, here freshly buoyed up by yet another Roland Garros victory, that nothing would divert his focus or lessen his intensity. Neither man faced or offered up a break point in the third and fourth sets, but come the champion-testing tie-breaks, Nadal rose to the challenge.
With the first, he roared ‘Vamos!’, and pumped and jumped as though the match was won, 7-6(5). And then he repeated in the fourth set, 7-6(3), to take back the lead in this rivalry.
It also took Nadal to his 50th match-win at Wimbledon, something only eight players in the Open era have done before, and to a 10th third-round at the All England Club. There, he will play another unseeded but dangerous opponent in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Kyrgios afterwards admitted that it was Nadal’s infamous focus that had put the Spaniard on the winning side of the result:
“It was a high-level match. Two tie-breaks. I played a couple loose points here or there. That’s all it takes against a player like that. He was just too good today.
“He plays every point. He doesn’t take one point off… His ability to bring it every day and compete, it’s special. It’s not easy.”
And then he pin-pointed the key difference, what holds him back from achieving the heights of the three he so often references:
“I know what I’m capable of. I’m a great tennis player, but I don’t do the other stuff. I’m not the most professional guy. I won’t train day in, day out. I won’t show up every day. So there’s a lot of things I need to improve to get to that level that Rafa brings, Novak, Roger have been doing for so long. Just depends how bad I want it. But, no, at the moment I don’t think I can contend for a Grand Slam.”
Nadal was also frank in his assessment of those Kyrgios chances of Major victory:
“If, if, if. Doesn’t exist. As I said plenty of times, he’s a very top, talented player. But there is a lot of important things that you need to do to become a champion, no? He has a lot of good ingredients. But, of course, remain an important one sometimes, and that is the love, the passion for this game. Without really loving this game that much, is difficult to achieve important things.
“Anyway, with his talent and with his serve, he can win a Grand Slam, of course. He has the talent to do it. Is true that things can be completely different for him if he wants to play all the matches the same way that he tried today.”
He is not wrong. Nadal has conducted his entire career by bringing the same intensity to who he faces in his first match as he does to this final opponent. If Kyrgios was to do the same, and developed the off-court work ethic of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, he would perhaps be a champion by now.
Until then, he will draw fans, admirers and detractors, and enjoy a very decent living in his chosen sport. But will that, in the end, be enough? Only Kyrgios can say.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge