Nick Kyrgios is a versatile player but can be volatile on court and he thrives on the vibe from the crowd, especially at home.

Dominic Thiem is an electric player but can be erratic on court and he thrives on the energy he generates for himself, in almost any situation.

This was never more evident than when they clashed at the Australian Open on Friday

Both players have been around for long enough that their on and off court personalities are well known. There are few similarities between them, except when it comes to tennis: both are talent-filled, heavy-hitting world beaters who can take on any one on their day.

So when Thiem and Kyrgios set up their blockbuster third-round clash, there was understandable excitement for both the potential tennis and the atmosphere the home crowd would create.

As expected, the match delivered: a five-set classic with gaping momentum shifts, groundstroke rockets, and a gritty fight. The third seed emerged victorious after battling back from two sets to win 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in a match that, on closer examination, turned out to be symbolic of both Thiem and Kyrgios’ playing persona.

Showman Kyrgios vs Workman Thiem

The match started with Kyrgios breaking Thiem in the very first game, an indication of how fired up he was. On the last day with crowds in the stadium due to a snap lockdown, the local put up a show in the first set and sealed it with that one early break, conducting his favorite arena. Thiem didn’t do much wrong but a mix of Kyrgios’ shot-making and his own hesitancy meant he was a set down early.

The expected fightback didn’t come in the second set, instead it became a strange battle of contrasting styles. A well-behaved Kyrgios kept serving bombs to an opponent who is anyway perched much behind the baseline and was near impeccable at the net, using his tricks with elan – including his trademark underarm serve. It was not like Thiem was not able to deal with the firepower, but he was finding it hard to return it. It was still terrific tennis, but it was not his power-hitting brand. There was an attempt to reduce the pace of the ball, stay in points and perhaps rely on percentage shots to get through.

Suddenly, with a two sets lead, it looked like an upset was brewing. If this was a best-of-three match, there would have been no drama. But on the grand stage of a Grand Slam, persistence often counts more than flashiness, and this was a Major champion. The 27-year-old, a finalist last year, became a workman against the showman Kyrgios and tested his resolve with his own relentless belief.

Thiem had been at a decent level in the first two sets but he started finding his strokes, and serve, in the third and this tested the patience of the volatile Aussie. He had fought from two sets down to win the US Open final last year – in an empty stadium – and that performance seemed to spur him to tune out the sound and take more charge. He saved early break points in the third set and would not lose his serve again. He made just one, five and two unforced errors in the next three sets.

But, as much as Thiem levelled up, it was also Kyrgios who went down the rabbit hole. Not quite knowing how to hold on to the lead, he started unravelling despite the raucous support. He yelled at the crowd, broke racquets, banged his head with one and argued with the umpire, all usual habits. When he gave up a crucial break with an inexplicable tweener on break point, the result became even more apparent as Thiem clinched the fifth with a single break.

Kyrgios and the search for balance

The Australian didn’t enter the contest as favourite given he had not played for close to a year choosing not to travel during a pandemic while the Austrian had won his first Grand Slam. But he was expected to provide a big fight and bigger entertainment. Yet, he did one better and came close to winning in straight sets. Thiem was two sets and 15-40 down in front of a partisan crowd and with a potent Kyrgios in the zone. This was Kyrgios’ match to lose at that point, all he had to do was get a grip and maintain concentration for a little longer because he looked physically set for a second straight five-setter.

However, Kyrgios let something get to him – the occasion, Thiem’s fightback or just the nerves of being so close to one of his biggest wins – and the outcome became predictable. The world No 3 stayed calm and collected, he believed in himself while Kyrgios seemed to believe in his opponent more.

The 25-year-old is nothing if not authentic to himself, he proudly lives and dies by his own individuality: an underarm serve got him a lead, an absurd tweener saw him lose it. Yet, one can’t help but ask, for a man who is so gifted at the game and plays it so well, why can’t he just bring some balance to it? It would seem that flair and consistency can coexist, but that’s a match that can only be won in Kyrgios’ head. The day he himself wants to learn to control his extreme emotions, he will not only change his game but also men’s tennis in all probability.