“We need a clown for this circus.”
In 2015, Roger Federer uttered a line would go on to become iconic among tennis fans. While not directly aimed at a certain Nick Kyrgios, it was in the match where he lost to the 20-year-old in their first meeting. That Madrid Masters second round match also featured a meltdown at the chair umpire and racquet smash, but it was mostly his tennis that prompted the reaction.
In the four years since, Kyrgios has actually gone on become quite the circus act. But regardless of whether the act has good or bad, it has always been immensely entertaining.
This entertainment was never as striking as in the second-round blockbuster grudge match against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. The Spanish third seed won 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) to gain a measure of revenge for 2014 when teenage wildcard had stunned him on debut.
From the shot-making to the ranting, it showed both the yin and yang side of Kyrgios.
The four-set match had the intensity and raw quality that sometimes even Grand Slam finals lack. Even if you took away the drama, it was still an engrossing contest. But with the added spice of their rivalry, it became a pro boxing bout.
It was the theatre of tennis at its very best. The ball-striking was glorious, the creativity was enthralling, the energy was infectious, and the level of tennis kept you glued to the action.
The two threw everything at each other: crushing forehand winners, zinging first serves, agile volleys, and an ace on underarm serve – a shot Kyrgios is popularising again. There was even a full-blooded strike at 33-year-old’s chest that he barely fended off with his racquet. Kyrgios refused to apologise.
There were jibes before the match: the Australian continued in the same vein from when he won at Acapulco. There were glares during the match: the Spaniard was furious at the brazenness of his opponent. There was catharsis at the end of the match: Kyrgios capped him on the shoulder, Nadal waited for him to walk out together even as they avoided eye contact.
The irreverence of Kyrgios is novel for today’s tennis, no one grates the top players as much as the mercurial Aussie, more so because he has the shots to back up his potshots. You could see it Nadal’s celebration – he looked pumped when he held, he jumped a metre high in the air after clinching the third, he was not as fired up even when he won the last three French Opens.
Kyrgios having a meltdown was expected but Nadal’s astute gamesmanship was a zinger.
The 24-year-old was rattled about the time his opponent took between points, especially when he was ready to serve. He continued his rant to the umpire as Nadal took a timely bathroom break after the first set and eventually socked a violation. But he did get into Nadal’s head. The third seed admitted that he lost concentration in the second set, which is the only one he dropped.
But even as he raged, he played a brand of tennis some of his peers would love to have. Kyrgios – who had a 3-3 record against Nadal and 2-0 against Novak Djokovic – has a natural ability to hit the ball as hard as the best but remains a touch artist too, he can win points purely on instinct when he so deems. What he lacks though, is consistency and clarity of thought, both of which led to his downfall on Thursday.
After a love hold, Nadal broke him in the very first game which featured a crushing forehand from the left-hander, an ace, a superb drop shot and an unsuccessful tweener lob from the Australian.
That game should have set the tone for the match, but it didn’t. Even as he was annoyed and having a go at the umpire, Kyrgios found a way to elevate his game.
He broke early in the next set with two forehand winners and then saved two break points of his own in of the most brilliant phases of play. He kept arguing when Nadal delayed the on his serve and was broken. But a livid Kyrgios broke back to take the set.
If only he could do that over sets instead of games Kyrgios could be the future everyone thought he would be back in 2014.
He fired down 29 aces, many of them on crucial points and displayed his wonderful touch – the deft, delicious drops, the cracking cross-court winners, the creativity at the net. Through the next two sets, the Australian didn’t face a single break point and Nadal was finding it hard to read his versatile serve. But the determined Spaniard didn’t give in either.
When Nadal managed a good hold at 4-4 in the third set, he roared and tried to rally the crowd, an unusual move from a player who has been part of much more stories rivalries at Slams. It showed how much this win meant, it showed the value of having a circus.
The difference, in the end, was the tiebreak. Kyrgios had won all five tiebreaks he’d played against Nadal but when it counted the most, his wavering attention dropped for a jiffy and his opponent pounced on it. A few silly errors, free points on serve and the third seed did not look back, taking the final two sets to wrap up a fiercely fought battle.
The 24-year-old had called them polar opposites in the viral podcast where he slammed Nadal and Djokovic. It wasn’t untrue, Nadal’s bottles were meticulously arranged, Kyrgios’ own bench had bottles and banana peels strewn over – a metaphor for their game as well.
You can never what Kyrgios is going to do next, he is unpredictable and volatile and doesn’t treat all matches with the same dedication against the top players. Nadal, on the other hand, is always dogged and will fight with his forehand and focus to push any and every opponent.
But in one shining moment, they were the same – when they bared their heart on court and got the audience emotionally involved in a match that was more than tennis. The intensity of Nadal, the spontaneity of Kyrgios, fury they provoked in each other was not just their feelings on the Centre Court of Wimbledon, it was in the veins of those watching world over. It was the theatre of tennis at its very best.