The playing styles of Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev are as different as their trajectories in the sport. While Kyrgios is all about variety, Medvedev stands out for his consistency.
But on Monday at the Australian Open, they were almost kindred spirit as Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka beat them in the fourth round. Both young players were up against hardened warriors, they gave their best and didn’t do much wrong, objectively. In fact, both had beaten their opponents in Majors before. Yet they found themselves on the losing side, unable to subdue the Grand Slam champions and their champion mentality.
But even in the losses to Nadal and Wawrinka, both Kyrgios and Medvedev were handed down important lessons. Not in a metaphoric sense but a much more straightforward template of what their, admittedly effective, games lack.
Nadal wins battle, Kyrgios shows fight
Ever since stunning Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, the Australian marked himself as one of the players to watch out for and the five years of erratic play and behavior only served to increase the media attention. His tetchy relationship with Nadal made it an even more scrutinised contest.
Kyrgios was to be the first real test for world No 1 Nadal in the tournament even though he had an energy-sapping battle in his last match. But Nadal was to be his big test, mentally, after playing what was arguably the best match of his career. That the basketball-mad Aussie was emotionally disturbed after Kobe Bryant’s sudden death added another edge to the match.
In the end, it is only fair to say that Nadal won the battle, but it is Kyrgios who showed the fight.
The 24-year-old mercurial player has always reserved his best for the big players and his set record against Nadal is testament: the last two sets of their last three matches have all gone to tiebreaks.
In the first set, an early break gave Nadal the edge but Kyrgios rallied from the setback to save three breakpoints in the first game of the second set and eventually win it after breaking with a stunning lob shot. In the third, he faced was just one break point but didn’t get any and went down in the tiebreak with a combination of strange errors and striking tennis from Nadal.
In the fourth as well, he fought his heart out. After losing serve early, he broke Nadal serving for the match and then saved two break points to consolidate, even recovered from a mini-break in the tiebreak.
Now, the Spaniard doesn’t always get broken while serving for the match, nor is he prone to committing double faults at set point, as he did in the third. So one can imagine the level that his opponent played at with volatile, versatile game.
But it is this versatility that took him down, on a day he limited his volatility as much as he could. There was a racquet smashed and the frequent admonishments of himself and his team, but that should be considered normal by now.
The attempted drop shots and lobs and volleys that flunked could well have been regular winners had he stayed in the point or wrong-footed Nadal. He should have followed what he did in his last two matches and tried more percentage tennis. But shot selection has never been his strong suit and as sizzling as his serve was, his groundstrokes errors should serve as a template of what not to do.
There were so many moments in the match when Nadal seemed to be in control but Kyrgios somehow carved his way back in. To maintain that level and to do it consistently, against all players in any venue, will be the challenge.
Kyrgios admitted he has a lot to learn as a person and player and even Nadal lavished praise on his opponent. But it is John McEnroe who best summed up the implications of this match: “If Nick plays anything like he did tonight, then he can be in the top 10 by the end of the year.”
Wawrinka outlasts Medvedev
Now Wawrinka may not be on the same level as Nadal but he is a three-time Grand Slam champion and he was up against the youngster widely touted to be the next Major winner after reaching the US Open final.
But even though the fourth seed was the highest-ranked player to fall, the five-setter won’t go down as an upset. Because the player at the other end was the 2014 champion Wawrinka who has troubled even Novak Djokovic in Grand Slams.
Played on Margaret Court Arena, to some viewers, this may have like a regular match, little element of the sensation that five-setters generally provide nor the thrill that was expected at Nadal vs Kyrgios.
But when in the fourth set the 34-year-old Swiss levelled up, he rolled back the years and the months of failed chances. He faced no break point, pulled to the decider and then pressed on.
It’s important to note that Medvedev didn’t actually play poor tennis or make glaring errors, he stuck to the course with his strong baseline game but found himself floundering against an opponent who was playing at a superlative level.
When the Swiss star is in his zone, few things can stop him. He hasn’t found that zone in a long time and the knee surgery that ended his 2017 season didn’t help matters.
But given the caliber, you know when he Wawrinka does get into this zone, he is virtually unbeatable. Medvedev stitched his own stunning run a few months back but he has yet to find his own zone, one where he can get his rhythm back after going a break or a set down. The 23-year-old is now 0-6 in fifth sets.
After losing the fourth in the tiebreaker, Medvedev was broken in the very first game and it appeared as if he wasn’t able to shrug off that loss and the lapse meant he had to catch up constantly in the decider. This loss should help him figure out smooth transitions from setbacks and the ability to play the fifth set shoot-out afresh.