Years from now, when their careers are over and they reflect on their many battles, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev might well recall the first time they met at an ATP World Tour event. It happened Tuesday at the BNP Paribas Open, the third match of the day on Stadium 2 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The fans, well aware of the possibilities these two possess, filled just about every seat in the tidy venue.
It was Kyrgios who took command early, breaking Zverev at 1-all. From there, in the big picture, the Aussie never looked back, again breaking Zverev at 3-5 to handily take the first set. “I wasn’t serving well,” Kyrgios said, “so I thought I just competed well. It was always going to be a tough match.”
There was a curious passivity to Zverev’s game, of shots struck hard but scarcely assertive. Kygrios was the cat. At one point he feathered a drop shot, then lifted a backhand topspin lob winner – not easy given that Zverev is 6’ 6.”
Even in the second set, as Zverev picked up the intensity, Kygrios remained calm, combining meat-and-potatoes stability (yes, he can do this) with trademark brilliance. A vivid demonstration of why Kyrgios is arguably the most creatively talented player since Roger Federer came when in a single rally he hit a backhand tweener, followed by a nonchalant sidespun forehand approach that went about as fast as the ones you’ll see at a park on Sunday morning, then closed out by a deft forehand crosscourt drop volley.
Though the second set remained on serve, it was hard to see how Zverev was going to assert himself. Serving at at 4-5, 15-love, the German double-faulted, sprayed a backhand long and served up a weak second serve to put himself down double match point. Saving the first with a forehand winner, on the second, Zverev netted a forehand. Kygrios had won, 6-3, 6-4.
“It was the worst match I played all year,” said Zverev. “It’s quite simple. My serving was absolute horrible, my returning was absolutely horrible. From the baseline was horrible. There is not one thing I did well.”
This was one case where Kyrgios was able to come off more like a statesman than rebel. “There was a lot of pressure,” he. “I thought at times we both looked nervious… He’s going to beat me plenty of times in his career.”
In the wake of a rather tepid Kyrgios-Zverev #1, the tennis world geared itself up for pleasure of the highest order: The joyous reality of Federer-Nadal #36. Such is the result of each legend’s layoff that they are meeting in the round of 16. This is the earliest they’ve met at a tournament since their very first match, back in the round of 32 of Miami in 2004 (won by Nadal, 63, 63).
Comparing Indian Wells to their most recent match in the finals of the Australian Open, Federer said, “I think the match will be played a bit different. Then again, this is a hard court, I know, but it plays very different to Australia. We have different ball, different grit of court.”
In theory, the slower court and conditions should aid Nadal’s ability to make the ball jump up high to Federer’s backhand. Then again, as Nadal noted, “his backhand in Melbourne was one of the best days that I played against him.”
Beyond all the Xs and Os, though, tennis aficionados will take joy simply in watching these two compete against one another so quickly after their surprising run Down Under. In recent years, everything from the ascent of others to various injuries had sent the Federer-Nadal rivalry into the eclipse stage. With each past 30, such seemed the natural order of things. But as proven, Federer and Nadal have the skill and will to defy nature. Australia appeared to be the requiem for a rivalry. But here they are once again: encore in the desert. Savor every minute.