Wimbledon, England – Confronting the tennis talents of Nick Kyrgios, a strong Australian with hands as soft as a masseuse, is very difficult in itself.
This is just the beginning. Kyrgios, a practitioner of psychological warfare, could be even more terrifying.
Outspoken and brilliant in sports, the outspoken bad boy whose actions stole the Wimbledon spotlight casts huge crowds that fill the stadiums to watch his matches, even on Wimbledon’s main court, supposedly the temple of decency.
Rally mid-race, stunt shots between legs, curling winners and anti-social theater force opponents to take on Kyrgios and thousands of spectators looking for another episode of the most unpredictable and most compelling performances in tennis.
“Come on, Nick!” Shouting like a friend playing darts in the pub.
His usual fights with the referees break out without warning and can reappear during the match. He knows how much he is loved and hated, and when a Grand Slam becomes a soap opera he’s starring in, as in this one, his game is where he wants it to be.
“I’m sitting here now in the Wimbledon quarter-final again, and I just know there are a lot of people who are very upset,” he said after beating USA Brandon Nakashima on Monday in five sets, 4-6, 6-4, 7. -6(2), 3-6, 6-2. “It feels good.”
Kyrgios battled his psychological battles during the ups and downs of his erratic career. A few years ago, his agent had to pull him out of a bar at 4 am because he had a game against Rafael Nadal later that day. He knows as much as anyone that tennis is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one, perhaps even more so. He shakes his opponent’s focus, and does everything in his power to force the guy across the net to start thinking about the drama rather than his game.
Here are the facts of Kyrgios’ fourth-round match against Nakashima, a rising and balanced 20-year-old American, which took place two days after Kyrgios angered Stefanos Tsitsipas, which was a circus of stark matches with officials that worried Tsitsipas, the Greek superstar. The fourth seed, who began trying to hit Kyrgios with his shots – often misses.
Midway through the first set against Nakashima, Kyrgios appeared to have injured his right arm and shoulder while attempting a forehand from Nakashima’s serve. By the final stages of the group, Kyrgios, whose cannon-like serve is among his most powerful, was gripping and massaging the area around his right triceps on transitions and between points.
He winced after some serve and forehand and repeatedly rotated his arm, as if trying to lengthen the joint and the muscles around it.
Unable to swing freely and unable to unleash nearly 140 mph as he did in his first three matches, Kyrgios stopped chasing and reaching for balls. In the tenth match, Nakashima, who played his trademark efficiently, jumped Kyrgios’ diminishing serve repeatedly to win the first set 6-4. The young American seemed to be in cruise control mode.
The referee and tournament official asked Kyrgios if he was feeling well and if he needed medical attention. He waved them, but as the second set started, there was more shoulder rub, more bore, and more arm rotation. Kyrgios’ forehand became a wrist whip instead of the windmill pushing opponents back.
Sometimes there is nothing as difficult as playing against an injured opponent. Players ask themselves not to change anything, and to play as if everything is normal. But the mind can instinctively rest, suggesting not to hit that next forehand close to the line or too hard because it probably isn’t necessary against a weak opponent.
On Monday afternoon, Nakashima could not ignore Kyrgios’ wins and his shoulder or his extremely slow walk from one side of the court to the other for the next point.
The more Kyrgios rubbed his shoulder, the more Nakashima became hesitant. He missed seven of eight first serves in the third game of the second set, then missed a forehand at the break point, and suddenly Kyrgios had the momentum.
Then the numbers on the board tracking Kyrgios’ transmission speed began to rise, from 110 to 120 mph and up from there. Explosive forehands began to appear again. Serving at a critical moment late in the group, Kyrgios hit the 137th and 132nd on the radar gun. Minutes later, everything was up.
Nakashima settled early in the third set. While dispatching, halfway through, Kyrgios summoned the physiotherapist and took a medical timeout. When Kyrgios received a massage, Nakashima got up from his chair and performed shadow exercises facing the stands instead of Kyrgios.
Back on the field, Kyrgios once again served above 120 mph. He extended his lead in the tiebreak with a header to 129 mph, then won it with a forehand.
“He was still playing well after medical time, and he’s still tearing up the ball, so I don’t think it was a big injury,” said Nakashima, who had no answers to Kyrgios’ serve or forehand in the third set of the third-set tiebreak.
The shoulder drama – later described by Kyrgios as one of his “shakes” which he treated with some painkillers – ended there.
Another group, another mind game. Kyrgios, who serves 5-3, could have won the match and had Nakashima serve the set so that Kyrgios could serve first in the decisive chapter.
Not much. How about three hits within the 75 mph range, one stealth, and forehand strikes at a specific point so that they’re clearly aimed at the field? (He hit his target.) Was Kyrgios resigning now?
“Full rope tactic,” Kyrgios said. “I just got rid of this game of service. I knew he was in a rhythm. It was starting to take over me. I kind of just wanted to shake it up a bit.” It worked.
Not judging by aces, or a running shot, he mowed the lawn perfectly on his first serve.
There were challenges on calls he thought were wrong, some of which were evident in some of the shots. Nakashima served at Deuce in a 1-1 draw which made it a good time for Kyrgios to start unwinding by ruling the chair. He then stabbed a backhand at the breaking point and fired a backwards squash shot to induce the outage error.
The blinds were pretty much out of there. Sending 134 mph had Kyrgios match the 5-2 point. A surprise serve and a ball on the second serve on match point resulted in the goal being achieved.
Cristian Garin of Chile, ranked 43 in the world, came next in the quarter-finals. The show continues, and may continue.