Rafa Nadal and Nick Kyrgios like to bite things. After winning titles, Rafa chomps down on his trophy. After changeovers, Kyrgios chews on his towel.
The two are world-class players with Mediterranean roots who were both reared on islands. They both stormed onto the international stage when they were 19 and have wins over all the biggest names in the game. They ooze with talent and draw throngs. Their beautiful brown bodies amaze. But they make each other bristle. Their rivalry is testier then any since McEnroe and Connors. Could they be more different?
In 2014 Kyrgios scored one of the most memorable shock upsets in Wimbledon history when he blasted Rafa off the court. More recently, in Acapulco this winter, Nick again prevailed in a spit-and-vinegar match complete with howling crowds and inventive but nasty taunts. Rafa has won 18 Slams, Olympic Gold, and he’s camped out at No. 1 for 196 weeks. But, going into the most anticipated second-round match in years, he and Nick had split their six previous matches.
Nadal loves order. He fusses forever over his water bottles. His rituals are renowned, whether it’s leaping up and down before coming out on court, sprinting to the baseline after the coin toss or, for that matter, winning the French Open. Kyrgios embraces chaos.
Over his career Rafa’s only had a couple of coaches. Nick doesn’t have a coach. It’s said that Rafa’s the fittest player in the game. Before matches, Nick downs milkshakes. Last night, reportedly he was downing beverages at the Dog and Fox pub until 1 AM.
Nadal is a gentleman who honors royals and teaches children. If a reporter asks a dumb question, Nadal lets him down easy. He’s old school – respect matters. And, of course, Nadal battles fiercely for every point. Kygrios – not so much.
In the locker room, many love Nick. And he’ll chat with cafeteria workers or be kind to victims of gun violence or car accidents. “There’s this endearing populism to the guy,” said Jon Wertheim. “He’s more comfortable hanging out with kids and mingling with fans and playing on back courts than he is dealing with the establishment…Kyrgios clearly rejects the social conventions of tennis. But [unlike McEnroe] he does so by gravitating to the people, not away from them.”
Nick is tennis’ rebel without a pause. He’ll taunt Stan Wawrinka. He’ll tank in Singapore or at Wimbledon. He’ll walk out of an Italian Open match or go after English fans. Even more than with Jimmy Connors, a wrong phrase in the press room can devolve into a mighty misadventure. His sarcastic wit stings. A few years ago, Allyson Rudd noted, “Nick’s all moody and misunderstood… his eyes glinting in distaste that his behavior was being analyzed…[After all, he] was able to turn the removal of a pair of socks into an angst-ridden one-man show worthy of a fringe theatre specializing in Bertolt Brecht. His behavior screamed, ‘I’m bored.’”
While Nick is thin-skinned to a fault, he’s an equal-opportunity critic. He’s not a fan of Denis Shapovalov’s rapping. He’ll never watch a Tsitsipas vlog. To him, Djokovic’s celebrations are “cringe-worthy.” Fernando Verdasco is “the most arrogant person ever,” and Nadal is “my polar opposite, and he’s super salty every time I’ve beaten him.”
Today Nadal did what he had to do. He started fast and moved swiftly. He blocked out much of Kyrgios’ theater. The only noise he heard was from the crowd, and he played two fine tiebreaks to win 6-3, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 in three of the more entertaining hours Centre Court has enjoyed in a good while.
When asked what would happen if, like himself, Kyrgios could try hard on every point, Rafa quipped, “if, if, if – doesn’t exist…He’s a top talent player. But there are a lot of important things you need to become a champion, no? He has a lot of good ingredients.”
Kyrgios recently told Ben Rothenberg, “Winning matches, winning a Slam, stuff like that doesn’t make me happy…I just want to be home…the world is not going to stop spinning because I lost a match.”
A while ago Chris Evert mused: “I don’t know how much you can teach hunger and focus and commitment. You can encourage it, but until it gets into Nick’s persona, until it gets into his conscience and his heart, we’re not going to see the best of Nick Kyrgios.”
Still, as Linda Pearce noted, “For better or (often) worse, Nick is unfailingly honest and authentic; one of the most admirable Kyrgios traits is that he is who and what he is and has never tried or pretended to be anything else.”
He’s spontaneous and unpredictable. “Don’t fence me in” is his ethos. Here’s a man skipping though an oh-so-serious, structured world singing, “I’ll do it my way.” Once again, today we saw a man-child doing his rarely boring thing: underarmed serves, 143 mph aces, no-look volleys, behind-the-back volleys, delicate dinks and lobs, Sampraseque leaping overheads, and laser forehand blasts that were right on the lines, right at Rafa or right out of the stadium.
Unfiltered, the Aussie is a wild outback horse spitting out his bit at every turn. You mutter, “He’s classless, he doesn’t care.” Rafa’s uncle insists Nick lacks respect and is bad for the sport. Nick sighs, “So what?”
In 1991, when Jimmy Connors made his magical, once-in-a-lifetime run to the US Open semis, Robert Lipsythe wrote, “He reminds us all how much we have given up by growing up. Lucky Jimmy. If only we could once again stop the party in the living room, make all the grownups applaud our naughty words, dance through the hors d’oeuvres, posture and preen and be a terrible two, the only time when a human being will be loved for conquering the world while crying.”
The same applies to a singular Aussie stallion named Nick Kyrgios.
Also Reporting – Lucia Hoffman