But no one I spoke with leading up to the clash with the Spaniard believed that Kyrgios could actually topple the 14 time Grand Slam tournament victor. Some speculated that he might take a set. Others figured he would simply bow out respectably, give Nadal some cause for consternation, but ultimately do nothing more than gain experience by learning from defeat. In the end, however, Kyrgios did so much more than that. He released 37 aces, lost his serve only once, and, most surprising of all, he was the better man in the crunch of a very tight contest. Kyrgios produced a gigantic upset, halting Nadal 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in two hours and 58 minutes. He was remarkably composed out there on the Centre Court against one of his sports legendary figures and most formidable match players.
Kyrgios somehow navigated his way through an arduous battle that could so easily have been taken by an opponent who has made a great living thriving under the most stressful of circumstances. The Australians poise under pressure was uncanny. He imposed himself enormously from the beginning to the end of the contest, and put on a stellar display. His assertiveness and unrelenting aggression made it nearly impossible for Nadal to settle into any kind of comfort zone, and the Spaniard found himself pressing far more often than he usually does. To be sure, he was outplayed by Kyrgios but the fact remains that in many ways the Spaniard beat himself with some crucial mistakes in the vital junctures of the encounter.
That is extraordinarily rare for Nadal to inflict damage upon himself at seminal moments, but all credit must go to Kyrgios for the way he started and finished the match, withstanding a significant surge from Nadal in the middle stages. Kyrgios served stupendously in the opening set, and Nadal never seemed to be able to read his opponents delivery. Kyrgios served 13 of his 37 aces in that set, and they came in clusters. He served two aces on his way to a 1-0 lead, three more on his way to 2-1, and another two en route to 3-2. The pattern continued. Kyrgios had another ace in holding for 4-3, and one more in the ninth game. He held for 6-5 with consecutive aces. In those six service games, he conceded only three points. Four times he held at love. He moved his delivery around skillfully, effortlessly sending thunderbolts down the T in the deuce court, swinging the serve wide in the deuce court to keep Nadal honest at times, always keeping the Spaniard at bay.
In fact, Nadal was fortunate to stay in that set as long as he did. At 2-3, he saved a break point. He saved another at 3-4. At 5-6, he was down set point on his serve, extricating himself with a 124 MPH first serve down the T that elicited a forehand return error from the Australian. Nadal tenaciously reached the tie-break, but he did not make his experience count in that sequence, falling behind 4-0. After Kyrgios took the first point with a forehand winner set up by a 133 MPH first serve down the T, Nadal netted a sliced backhand he could well have handled, made a glaring backhand return error, and then drove a routine forehand return long off a second serve that simply got away from him.
That was a bug cushion for Kyrgios. Although Nadal closed the gap to 4-3, Kyrgios connected for a forehand winner and then a 125 MPH ace down the T to make it 6-3. Nadal saved two set points on his own serve, but Kyrgios was unruffled, serving an ace out wide in the ad court to win the tie-break 7-5 and move unexpectedly out in front.
Early in the second set, however, Nadal seemed to find his range. He was holding easily and then at 2-1 he reached 30-30 on Kyrgioss serve before the Australian held on for 2-2 with consecutive aces. With Kyrgios serving at 2-3, Nadal took him to deuce a couple of times and returned much better, but still the Australian held on. Nadal began spotting his own serve with laser-like precision in the second set and backed it up with superb ball control off the forehand. In his six service games, he conceded only seven points, and then he made his move in the twelfth game, averting another tie-break with a clutch break of servehis lone break of the entire match. Kyrgios saved a set point with an ace, reached game point, but then Nadal drove a forehand up the line for an outright winner. The Spaniard coaxed another error from the Australian to garner a second set point, and this one he converted as Kyrgios erred off the forehand.
It was one set all, and it seemed almost certain that Nadal was going to win. He had the upper hand for most and nearly all of the third set, and always appeared to be on the verge of negotiating a service break. At 4-3, he had a 15-30 opening, but Kyrgios served his way aggressively out of that situation. After a confident love hold at 4-4, Nadal had Kyrgios at deuce, but the dynamic Australian released a pair of aces to reach 5-5. Nadal moved briskly to 6-5. Kyrgios had a 30-0 lead in the twelfth game but then double faulted and followed with an errant forehand. Nadal produced a scintillating forehand down the line winner to arrive at 30-40 and set point.
Kyrgios had been visibly tiring in the latter stages of the third set. Both players knew that Nadal would be unstoppable if he were to establish a two sets to one lead. But Kyrgios served down the T at 122 MPH, and Nadal could not get clear the net with his chipped backhand return. Kyrgios followed with an ace and then Nadal missed a forehand down the line return wide. It was 6-6. Nadal had outplayed his adversary by a considerable margin all through the set, and should have been confident despite his missed set point opportunity at 5-6.
But the Spaniard commenced the tie-break apprehensively, dropping the opening point on serve when he pressed badly on a forehand inside-in, sending that shot into the net. Nadal got back on serve by taking the next point with a winning backhand passing shot, but he fell behind 3-2 with another uncharacteristic mistake off the forehand side. Kyrgios erred off the backhand to make it 3-3. From there, Nadal moved ahead 5-4, once more within two points of prevailing in the pivotal third set. The Spaniard netted another chipped backhand return and then tentatively left a slice backhand crosscourt short. Kyrgios attacked, provoking Nadal into an errant lob. Now Nadal was serving at 5-6, and was set point down. He missed the first serve, and an opportunistic Kyrgios ran around his backhand and unleashed a scorching inside-out forehand return. Nadal tried to answer with a forehand down the line but he was narrowly off the mark.
Improbably, Kyrgios had salvaged the set, and no longer was he looking uncertain or fatigued. In fact, he had an entirely new lease on life. I watched this entire match from a good seat in the Centre Court press box, and it was clear to me that Kyrgios believed he had lost his chance when he dropped the second set. He seemed to be hanging on by a precarious thread in the third. Meanwhile, Nadal was comporting himself like a man who believed he was headed inexorably toward victory. But the mood changed considerably in the early stages of the fourth set. Nadal had a glimmer of hope when Kyrgios made consecutive unforced errors to trail 0-30 in the opening game, but the underdog responded to that predicament with assurance, serving aces on three of the next four points to hold on.
Nadal was fighting to bolster his self-belief, but he was off key. At 1-2, he had 40-30 but Kyrgios inventively angled a backhand return sharply crosscourt to draw an error. Kyrgios then drove a two-hander down the line for a clean winner. At break point, he walloped a forehand down the line that was unmanageable for Nadal. Kyrgios had broken Nadal for a 3-1 fourth set lead. It was his first and only break of the match. He promptly held for 4-1. At 4-2, he was locked at 30-30 on his serve, but he did not blink, taking the next two points, moving to 5-2.
Two games later, Kyrgios served for the match. All four first serves found their mark. He held at love. He had knocked out the No. 2 seed, who happens to be the top ranked player in the world. It was a monumental upset for a wildcard who had won the junior doubles title here the past two years. This was, after all, only the fifth Grand Slam mens event of his career and yet he had become the first player from outside the top 100 in the world to stop a No. 1 ranked player in the world at a Grand Slam event since Andrei Olhovsky beat Australian and French Open champion Jim Courier in 1992 on the lawns of Wimbledon.
In many ways, Kyrgios reminds me of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He has a similar kind of charisma and he connects with the crowds in almost the same way. Like Tsonga, Kyrgios is a magnificent athlete, but I believe he will eventually be superior across the board to Tsonga. His serve will be even better than the Frenchmans. His ground game is potentially sounder. His creativity is larger than Tsongas. And his demeanor is terrific.
To be sure, Kyrgios had nothing to lose. He could swing freely with almost no repercussions. He could pursue the task of trying to beat Nadal with an uncluttered mind. For him, it was almost a lark. But almost is the operative word. It is not uncommon to witness a heavy underdog attempting to bring down one of the sports immortals, but often they falter when on the edge of the achievement. Kyrgios managed to avoid that plight. In an odd way, his unwillingness to let victory elude him led to Nadals demise. Nadal beat himself with bad execution when it mattered most, but Kyrgios was unwavering.
For Nadal, the Wimbledon woes continue. He had been in five straight finals from 2006-2011, winning the tournament twice in that span. Then he was upended by Lukas Rosol in the second round two years ago before his ailing knee kept him out of the game for more than seven months. A year ago, he fell in the first round against the Belgian Steve Darcis, and clearly his knee was a factor again in that setback. This one was different. Nadal did drop the first set in every match he played at this tournament, but the knee seemed to hold up fine and he appeared to be improving with each contest.
He may have been hurt by having two days off after his third round win over Mikhail Kukishkin. That can throw off a players rhythm. His draw was never easy because he faced the left-handed, big-hitting Martin Klizan in the first round, Rosol in the second round and then an inspired Kukishkin in round three. Perhaps Nadal never found the rhythm he needed to go deeper into the second week and maybe claim his third Centre Court crown.
But full marks must go to Kyrgios, who acquitted himself honorably. Perhaps it was destiny. How else to explain a wildcard with his limited experience beating the best player in the world on the Centre Court only two rounds after surviving those nine match points against Gasquet. Kyrgios is the first man in ten years to reach the quarterfinals of a Wimbledon debut since Florian Mayer in 2004.
Win or lose against Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals, Nick Kyrgios has now established himself unequivocally as a player who could one day win a Grand Slam title. He has the temperament. He carries himself the way a champion should. He will keep honing his skills over the next several years. It will be at least three years before we really understand how far this man will eventually go in the game. Meanwhile, on the Centre Court of the games shrine, he out-competed the best competitor I have ever seen in tennis, and that, of course, is no mean feat.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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