He’s free form. Restraint and refined manners aren’t his thing. Nick Kyrgios shoots from the hip. His every action shouts, “I’ll do it my way!” Mind-boggling, inventive shots are his signature. You never know what will come from his racket or his mouth – flash winners, flash zingers. He’s a spontaneous man with a spontaneous tennis game.
Mystery and the unknown are in his DNA. At his matches, fabulous flicks, between-the-legs half volleys, thunderous forehands, underarm serves, laser aces are commonplace. He’ll give away points or pepper his foes with classless taunts. He’ll smash his racket or walk off court. Last fall, the ATP put him on probation.
As they did with McEnroe, fans at Nick’s matches eagerly await a volcanic explosion. Kyrgios is the foremost tennis showman of our era, and, when it comes to charisma and entertainment, he’s right up there with Connors, McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Andre Agassi and Ms. Serena. And that’s something, considering that coming into Melbourne, Nick wasn’t even the No. 1 Australian, was No. 26 in the world, had won only six titles in eight years, and in four years hadn’t been able to get beyond the fourth round of a Slam.
Kyrgios has been wonderfully heroic in his empathetic support of bushfire victims. Aussies showered him with love. Last April, he backed kids who’d been traumatized by a mass murder in Florida. And recently when he saw a roadside accident, he stopped and was a good Samaritan.
But he tends to come into the press room with a defensive ‘tude. He’s not big on eye contact. If a reporter suffers a small unforced error, he’ll snap. Last night, in his epic five-set win over Karen Khachanov, he barked at his box, “Get the F–k up,” and shouted at the ump, “Why are you so stupid?” A single taunt from a single obnoxious fan or a suspect call from the ump can trigger him. He gets locked into moody freefalls – “Woe is me.”
Oddly, a less-than-supportive comment from Kyrgios’ mom, Nill, kickstarted the juiciest tennis feud since McEnroe vs Connors. In 2014, Krygios’ mother, who comes from Malaysian royalty, said that No. 1 Rafa was just too good for her 19-year-old son, who was No. 144. That angered Nick, who promptly got into Rafa’s grill and became the first player outside the top 100 to beat a No. 1 at a Slam in 12 years.
Kyrgios and Nadal have met seven times, with Nadal holding a 4-3 lead. They’ll face off in a must-watch, prime-time match tomorrow night.
Their feud has deep roots. Kyrgios noted that he and Rafa are “polar opposites.” There is no fiercer fighter than Nadal. He sweats every detail of the game and is the essence of professionalism. But the King of Clay may now be said to be part of the tennis establishment. He has an almost royal respect for the game. Yes, he stretches the time-limit rules and he does pull at his backside. But for years he was almost painfully deferential towards his elder foe, Roger Federer. Rafa’s never broken a racket. He doesn’t drop f-bombs. He says it would be arrogant of him to say he doesn’t have doubts. He loves to laugh but has a certain gravitas.
Last year in Acapulco against Rafa, Nick saved a match point, and while coming back to score a shock win, he continually complained about Nadal’s slow pace. Later Rafa said Nick was “a player who has enormous talent, could be winning Grand Slams or fighting for No. 1…[but] he lacks respect for the crowd, his opponent and towards himself…he’s [not] a bad guy, but he lacks a little respect for the public and the rival.”
Kyrgios countered, saying Nadal “doesn’t know the journey I’ve been through. He doesn’t know anything about me. So, I’m not going to listen…The way he plays is very slow…The rule says he has to pay to the speed of the server, but Rafa has his speed every time.
“He’s got his own game. I’ve got my game…People are different so I’m not going to take that into consideration at all.”
Nadal’s often candid Uncle Toni then poured some fuel on the fire, saying, “Rafa is totally right. [Kyrgios] lacks education and smartness. He should be fighting for the top rankings and instead, he is No. 40. He does not look like a bad guy but he has been disrespectful too many times to get back on track.”
Rafa tried to diffuse the situation, but Nick responded saying that Rafa is super salty. “When he wins, it’s fine; he will credit the opponent. But as soon as I beat him, he has no respect for me, my fans or the game…and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“It’s not a good look. And then Uncle Toni comes out and says I lack education. Bro, I did 12 years at school, you idiot. I’m very educated. I understand you’re upset that I beat your family…We do things very differently.”
Then, during a loss to Rafa at Wimbledon, Nick twice served underarm on game point and blasted Nadal in the chest with a hefty forehand. When asked whether he would apologize, Kyrgios bristled, “Why? I mean, the dude has got how many Slams, how much money in the bank account? I think he can take a ball to the chest, bro. I’m not going to apologize to him at all…Yeah, I was going for him. Yeah, I wanted to hit him square in the chest. Like, he’s got decent hands.”
Here in Melbourne, after Kyrgios was called for a time delay in his match against Giles Simon, he promptly broke into an imitation of Rafa twitches. Later he joked he was being “a dick-head.”
When asked about it, Rafa quipped, “I really don’t care,” But another question came: “Do you like Nick?” Nadal replied, “I don’t know [enough]…When he does stuff that in my opinion is not good, I don’t like. When he plays good tennis and he shows passion for this game, he is a positive player for our tour, and I want my tour bigger…So the players who make the tour bigger are important…When he’s ready to play his best tennis and play with passion, [he] is one of these guys. When he’s doing the other stuff, of course I don’t like.”
Kyrgios replied, “Regardless if we don’t like each other…there’s a layer of respect. He’s one of the greatest of all time. I also read that he thinks I’m good for the sport.”
Certainly, Melbourne’s masses will like the next chapter in tennis’ spicy-fun soap opera – the Spanish king with a forehand vs. the Australian provocateur-in-residence with an attitude.
Due to climate change, there were no Australia Day fireworks in Melbourne tonight. But recently there has been little change of climate in the Kyrgios-Nadal spat. No wonder that, in anticipation of tomorrow night’s match, fans are expecting fireworks.