First it was the upset stomach, then it was the wrapped knee, then it was the taped-up back. Ordinarily just one of these is a sufficient reason for Nick Kyrgios to pack it in and retire from a match, especially if it’s some rando across the net who doesn’t fully capture his fickle attention. But against Rafael Nadal in a second-round match at the Mexican Open, that escape route was not open. This was a challenge that the world No. 72 deemed worthy of engagement.
The 23-year-old played through the aches and tapped into his talent, a roughly quarterly miracle and cause for celebration in some small, dumb cult circles. His tense 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(8) win was the sort of match Kyrgios apologists hold up like totems to explain how we manage to stay invested in his career. His typical season is a nearly uninterrupted marathon of disappointment, but these sporadic victories refill the tank (for more future disappointment). I never said it made sense.
Kyrgios is now 3-3 against Nadal, and 3-1 off clay. Novak Djokovic is the only active player with a winning record against the Spaniard, and the list of active players with a .500 record remains very short; none of the others have squared up six times. Kyrgios first upset Nadal while breaking out at Wimbledon 2014, and he picked up a straight-set victory in Cincinnati in 2017. After this win in Acapulco Wednesday night, as the crowd showered him in boos, Nadal slid him the most perfunctory of handshakes.
Then, in press, the Spaniard sized up his opponent:
He is a player who has a huge talent. He could win Grand Slams and fight for the top rankings, but there is a reason he is where he is. He lacks respect for the public, the opponent, and himself.
By tennis standards, Rafa emptied the clip there. Kyrgios has definitely, uh, bothered plenty of opponents, but rarely have they ever been so frank—on the record, anyway—about the heel in their midst. Players like Roger Federer tend to dance around the issue by talking about how Nick should really get himself a coach, instead of laying it out so plainly. That’s almost certainly the meanest thing that Nadal, typically courteous and subdued, has ever said about a colleague, and while there’s a fair amount of truth to it, Kyrgios didn’t seem to do anything in this particular match to warrant the criticism.
By Kyrgios standards, the man’s behavior was sterling. By tour standards, even, there wasn’t so much to be upset about. These moments might’ve riled up Nadal:
- Kyrgios on one occasion yelled at the audience to “shut the fuck up” when they were distracting the players during the points, but that doesn’t seem like it’d elicit this degree of anger from an opponent, and Rafa was bothered by the crowd too in that instance.
- Rafa felt rushed. Kyrgios and Nadal have the fastest and slowest paces of play on tour, respectively. The Australian likes to rip his next serve right after the last point ended. The Spaniard prefers to reset and re-adjust his hair and (under)garments between every exchange. There were multiple points in this match where Kyrgios served the ball before his opponent wanted to resume play. But the umpire took Rafa’s side each time, forcing Kyrgios to retake his serves, and in any case, players must “play to the reasonable speed of the server,” by the book.
- Kyrgios attempted an underhanded serve in the third set. That’s a legitimate tactic, though. If a player stands so far back to return serve that he disappears from the TV broadcast, he’s inviting that to happen. Any hand-wringing about the “spirit of the game” is bunk. I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to test this out on deeply entrenched returners like Nadal.
As for the usual Kyrgios hallmarks—umpire kvetching, getting snippy with the ball kids, performative sulking, abject tanking, dancing in an apathetic haze—there wasn’t much to speak of. He was dialed in for this one. Rafa could have been making a more general observation about Kyrgios’s career. In all likelihood, he was also frustrated and disappointed in himself for letting this match slip, considering how many chances he had to secure the win, and how few he generally requires.
When playing Kyrgios, breaking serve is the central challenge. It’s hard as hell to do, but it can virtually lock up the set, because Kyrgios has been winning a mere 11 percent of his own return games over the last year. (He did not produce a single break point in this match.) In the first set, Nadal found and pounced on his first break point. In the second set, Nadal had four break points, but couldn’t cash out on any of them, and was blown out in the tiebreak. In the third set, Nadal had five more break points, but those all passed him by, too. Then, in the tiebreak, he had three match points, and those weren’t enough. From 6-3 up, Nadal lost five straight points and the match, including a double-fault. It was an uncharacteristic choke, though Kyrgios should be credited for how well he played in the circumstances:
This was easily the most entertaining match of the season, and the last two sets featured a slew of memorable rallies. Motivated Kyrgios is a rarely spotted but impressive species. The backhand, a compact flick struck so flat it almost seems to put underspin on the ball, looks like a bloodless push shot on his worst days. On his best, it becomes a versatile weapon. He can use it to flatly redirect the opponent’s pace, or sap the pace entirely with a drop shot, or genuinely rip it for his own offense. Though his forehand does its the bulk of the work, the backhand makes a nice cameo this great rally, eventually cut short by a wild knifing slice:
Kyrgios doesn’t stick to “normal” shots; he hits junk that breaks the typical grammar of the game and nudges it toward improvisation. Nadal might not like getting toyed with like this, and even at 32 he’s still fast enough that few would test him. It’s probably somewhat infuriating to see the opponent get away with it, too, courtesy of some soft hands:
The constant threat of weirdness makes his regular groundstrokes that much more dangerous; it’s hard to develop a rhythm when the options on any given ball range from 100 mph topspin to awful forehand slice. But even when Kyrgios played more conventional fare, Nadal was often simply outplayed from the baseline. He had to assemble some of his best tennis to erase some of the break opportunities in the third set:
At this point there aren’t many players who can leave an incredible defender like Rafa bereft on the baseline, watching the ball hiss past him. It takes a whole lot of pace, for several balls in a row. While power has historically been one way to take him out, more recently Nadal has had Stan Wawrinka’s number, and Juan Martin del Potro’s, too. Kyrgios’s pace and spin is a different creature. He can generate hard-to-read haymakers with seemingly the most lackadaisical setups. On this point, he bullies his opponent around to set up a forehand that never had a chance of coming back over the net.
When asked why he tried so hard in his first-round match against Andreas Seppi, Kyrgios said he saw Nadal in the draw. After notching this win and learning about Rafa’s comments, he wrote, “Don’t doubt yourself, there are plenty of people who will do that for you. I can smell the blood when I play this dude.” Once again, the master underperformer elevated his game to meet the very best. Along with his 3-3 against Nadal, he’s 2-0 against Djokovic and 1-3 against Roger (with eight tiebreaks in those 12 sets). On the off-chance that Nick Kyrgios ever wins a major, it’ll only be because he happened to draw the Big Three across his first five matches. For now, he’ll take the satisfaction of beating a 17-time major winner—though victory deserves a more attractive pizza.