It was a match presented as the clash of the second round, but in the early going it looked set to disappoint. Rafael Nadal, twice a champion at Wimbledon, came out firing, landing an early blow by breaking Nick Kyrgios in the Australian’s first service game. The third seed, who had taken unkindly to comments made by Kyrgios on a podcast in May, looked determined to impose himself on the lower-ranked man from the outset.
Kyrgios, vocally frustrated by the time Nadal was taking between points, struggled to find his focus, instead spending his energy complaining to the beleaguered umpire Damien Dumosois. But down 2-5 in the first set, he delivered a Kyrgios Special from the line, hammering a 143 mph second serve clean past Nadal before catching him out with an underarm serve on his way to hold to love. Neither Nadal nor the crowd were best pleased at that, but it woke Kyrgios up, albeit too late to save the set.
In the second, Nadal was under the cosh from the start as Kyrgios began to impose himself, using sharply angled forehands to pull Nadal off the baseline and push him wide. He was rewarded for his efforts with an early break. Nadal managed to recover it in fairly short order, but Kyrgios was not to be denied. Stepping up his aggression, he broke again at 4-3 and this time he had no intention of letting Nadal escape as some more excellent serving sealed it.
If Nadal had not been thinking about their 2014 clash on the same court, he surely was now. In that match, a then-unknown Kyrgios had summoned a storm of winners, some more orthodox than others, to stun then-world #1 Nadal and briefly emerge as men’s tennis’ next big star. But Kyrgios’ temperament ultimately precluded him for launching a sustained challenge to the hierarchy he had thought to put a dent in at the All England Club.
In Kyrgios’ defence, those three giants of the game, Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, have survived more determined assaults than his. And the Australian arrived into his 13th clash with one of the trio with a very creditable 6-8 record, which included two unanswered victories over Djokovic, admittedly won in 2017 when the Serbian was hampered by an elbow injury, as well as a 6-7 7-6 7-6 win in his first meeting with Federer and a 3-6 7-6 7-6 comeback win over Nadal in Acapulco earlier this season.
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But if Nadal did have 2014 on his mind, he didn’t allow it to upend his concentration. He couldn’t afford to. The Spaniard dug in to steady the ship early on in the crucial third set, keeping Kyrgios at bay with some fine forehands and accurate serving. Yet nor was Kyrgios willing to give any ground. His serve, one of the best in the men’s game, was working as well as ever and against it Nadal could make no inroads. It would take a tiebreak to settle it.
They had played five previously and Kyrgios had won them all. Nadal, determined to break that streak, made the better start, seizing the early momentum with the first minibreak and taking a 4-1 lead. Kyrgios searched for a route back to parity, but at the vital moment his touch failed him as he surrendered another point on his own deal to fall behind 2-5. The Australian battled on, but Nadal had him where he wanted him. He took the set with a rifled forehand into the open court, greeting his victory with a roar and a leap of triumph.
After so much effort spent and so little gained, many players would have buckled in the face of Nadal’s relentless will to win. But Kyrgios did not yield. After sitting in contemplative silence at the end of the third, he came out ready to compete again at the start of the fourth. His serve, backed ably by his forehand, remained unassailable. Once more, the pair marched on inexorably towards a tiebreak, with Nadal holding to love in the 12th game of the set to send it into another shootout.
And again, it was Kyrgios touch that betrayed him. In the first point, with the court at mercy, he dumped a high volley into the net to hand Nadal the lead. His legs too had begun to weary and Nadal took ruthless advantage, dragging Kyrgios out wide, with the Australian half-a-step slow out to the ball. Still, his serve was keeping him in the contest, even if he was only clinging on by his fingertips. But Nadal was in no mood to be merciful.
As Kyrgios resolve faltered, the Spaniard increased his own intensity as he went in search of the final, decisive blow. He found it as Kyrgios sent a forehand wide to give his opponent three match points. Nadal needed just one.
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