Australian Open: 'I Know That Nick Kyrgios Can Win'

Photo by Pat Scala/Getty Images


By Bill Simons

MELBOURNE, Australia—Too often tennis burdens us with desperately routine matches.

But then it explodes with pure unfiltered emotion, high drama and a sporting ferocity that shakes bones—such glee, and a sense of wonder. What else matches it?

It’s Saturday night and life is summer-good Down Under. Fish are jumping.

So welcome to the Australian Open’s third show court — the oddly named Hisense Arena.

The place has a white techno roof like Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It only has 10,000 seats in a contained square that rumbles loud. Decibels approach Ashe Stadium’s New York roar, and when emotions soar, steel beams relent and offer a wobbly shake. Here you can reach out and hug the action. Intimacy is good.

So is the strapping young lad before us. Volatile and alive, wild Aussie boy Nick Kyrgios teases us with abundant talent. “I could be the next great one, ” the kid appears to promise.

But he is not at all like your grandfather’s Aussie champ, classy in white gear and by the book — “Well done, lad.” Unlike the great Aussie Pat Rafter, he is not a stylish net charger with a ponytail. Nor is he “Rusty. ” That would be Lleyton Hewitt—feisty, fierce and kind of mean—yelling “C’mon!” as his foe double faults, then grabbing victory by the throat.

For Kyrgios is his own man, new, modern, confidently irreverent—not Ken Rosewall. He cares (and wants to win) but doesn’t care (what others think). He is interesting and drips charisma. He’s doing it his way. Few others have a better roar.

He’s young, lanky, emotional. His haircut is cool, emotions hot. He dresses in bold splashes of neon. His shoes are beyond bright. So is his future.

Some celebrate Federerian grace. For Nick, it’s grunt and blast: blur serve, howitzer forehand, hit and miss. Whatever consistency is, it’s not Nick Kyrgios. Brilliance and blunders mix with a maddening frequency. Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes.

Still, the teen wonder excites. He’s raw and explodes with potential. We ask, “Is he our game’s next ‘It Guy’?”

“He might appear cocky,” says his mom Norlaila, “but it’s mostly a front. He has got to shield his inner self because it is very pressured out there. Most of the time he is just trying to be cheeky or funny, and sometimes it can be misinterpreted … He can growl like a lion, he can pump up the crowd, or talk to himself—he could even break a racket … I just ask him not to do it on purpose.’’

What Kyrgios did on purpose was shock Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon last year, becoming the lowest-ranked player to defeat a world No. 1 at a Slam since 1992. And now, going into his fourth-round match against Federer conqueror Andreas Seppi, he had another purpose. He hoped to become the youngest male teen to reach multiple Grand Slam quarterfinals (Wimbledon and the Aussie Open) since some guy named Federer.

Kyrgios is only No. 53 in the world. He lost his first match at the Sydney warm-up tourney. His back is a question. His concentration is a bigger one. But few doubted his belief. He just tweeted, “I don’t fear anyone.”

So in Hisense Arena, frenzied Aussies brushed aside the inconvenient reality that, like Federer, Kyrgios dropped the first two sets to Seppi. Instead, prompted by the Aussie Fanatics—the best tennis cheerleaders anywhere—the throng offered a staccato chant with an almost religious fervor. “I believe that Nick will win, I believe that Nick will win,” they sang again and again, a mass mantra in a sporting temple.

But wait, Hisense is not really a holy tennis site. It’s not pure, sacred and embraced by ivy like Wimbledon. The chants at Hisense don’t resonate with the know-it-all sophistication you hear at the French Open and the yuppies here are not nearly as hip or rich as at Ashe Stadium, a sizzling venue where the Diamond Vision is a compelling entertainment unto itself.

Here, in a stadium named for a Korean electronics manufacturer, the scoreboard shows a too-happy Aussie family delighting in their Korean car in suburbia. All the while Kyrgios, an Aussie of Greek and Malaysian heritage, manages to break serve early in the third set to start a slow ascent.

Some celebrate Hisense as a people’s court: a grounds pass gets you in. But when a fan calls out rudely, a critic quips, “That’s what you get in this place—the drunks.”

You could say that 10,000 fans were drunk with intent. The throng pleaded with Kyrgios, willing him to stage a comeback.

And he did, winning the third and fourth sets, then going up 4-2 in the fifth.

“This is the best moment in Australia in six years,” said the excited Melbourne writer next to me.

But then the inconsistent warrior faltered. while Seppi—a 6’3” Mediterranean Viking—counterattacked and sprinted to the lead and a match point. “There’s a reason this guy beat Fed,” mumbled one nervous fan.

Brave Kyrgios, who lost in five sets here last year, simply told himself, “I just have to hit one big serve to get back into it.” Kyrgios knows big serves, and he pounds his forehand with belief. As he surged back, yellow-clad fans flooded the aisles. All of Australia cared, or so it seemed. Cameramen sprinted and squinted, eager to get their money shots. Rallies lengthened, cat-clever. Silence descended. Only indifferent flocks of swooping seagulls insisted there was more to life than a tennis contest.

On this night, and in this place, there wasn’t.

For Nick Kyrgios, the man of the future, and his nation, an oddly anti-climactic Hawk-Eye call sealed a 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 8-6 victory to remember.

Kyrgios became the youngest Aussie man to reach the quarterfinals here in 25 years. All of which left those Aussie fanatics in a frenzy. While earlier they had been chanting their mantra (“I believe that Nick will win, I believe that Nick will win”), now they were rolling around in a joyous human heap on the carpeted corridor outside the arena. Sure, their man would next have to play Andy Murray. But for the moment, they ecstatically chanted, “I know that Nick has won, I know that Nick has won.”

And so did all of the Australian nation—well, except for the seagulls.