Kyrgios charge nixed by relentless Rafa

  • David Cox

Rafael Nadal kept his nerve to see off Nick Kyrgios 6-3 3-6 7-6(6) 7-6(4) in an enthralling last 16 clash to set up a quarterfinal with Dominic Thiem.

In the most highly-anticipated match of Australian Open 2020 so far, Kyrgios showed plenty to trouble his rival, but in an almost carbon copy of their Wimbledon match last year, Nadal proved just slightly more consistent when it mattered most.

In the build-up, Kyrgios had sought to play down most of the animosity which had festered between the duo over the past year, insisting, “I don’t really dislike him. I’m sure he’s okay.” Nadal too was keen for a truce, saying “When he plays good tennis and he shows passion for this game, he is a positive player.”

Instead, much of the immediate pre-match build up focused on Kyrgios’ state of mind, following the tragic passing of basketball legend Kobe Bryant overnight. Kyrgios – a passionate basketball fan – was observed crying during his practice session earlier in the day, and again while walking on court. During the opening set, in which he seemed uncharacteristically subdued, the emotion appearing to hinder him.

MORE: All the results from Day 8 in Melbourne

But Kyrgios has always had that unique ability to disrupt Nadal’s concentration, throwing him off his rhythm in a manner which almost no other player is capable of through his constant desire to please the crowd rather play the percentages. It is this factor which makes their matches so compelling.

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Kyrgios tested the Spaniard's patience, but he held firm

The Aussie shrugged aside his sluggish start to turn the contest into a display of high-quality shotmaking. During the second set which the Aussie won with a single break – clipping the back edge of the line with a forehand to go 3-1 up – he made 15 winners and just seven unforced errors.

As the match drew closer, so the tension increased. Midway through the third set, Kyrgios attempted his first underarm serve. At one point he ripped a forehand passing shot straight at Nadal, somewhat reminiscent of his attempt to poleaxe the Spaniard at Wimbledon.

But while Kyrgios kept himself within touching distance, his determination to tread the fine line between the entertaining and infuriating let him down at the match’s most crucial moments. Attempted dropshots when it seemed simpler to just hit a winner and one too many trick shots kept the packed audience on Rod Laver Arena wringing their hands in frustration.

The third set tiebreak was full of high drama – Kyrgios launched into a bout of early histrionics, smashing a racquet after going 3-1 down, but the clowning around seemed to disrupt Nadal’s legendary focus, and at 5-5 it was anyone’s to win. Kyrgios elected to hit two first serves, double faulting in the process, but then the Spaniard responded with a double of his own. Was this Kyrgios’ chance? No. In typical fashion, Nadal closed out the next two points to take a two sets to one lead.

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Kyrgios looked down and out early in the fourth set, but mounted one final charge

At the change of ends, Kyrgios sat pointing at his head shouting at himself, “I don't want to hear you. I don't want to hear you,” and his focus appeared elsewhere at the start of the fourth. Two forehand errors and a double fault handed Nadal a break to love in the third game, and at 5-3 he appeared on the verge of victory.

However, Kyrgios found a second wind, breaking back with a series of thunderous forehands as the Spaniard served for the match and forcing a second tiebreak. However, once again Nadal proved ice-cool in the tiebreak, booking his place in the last eight as a Kyrgios forehand flopped into the net.

At more than three and a half hours, it was his toughest test of the tournament so far, but Nadal will take some stopping as he looks to reach his fourth Australian Open final in the past seven years.

"I think I played well from the baseline, changing directions, changing rhythms, playing aggressive with my forehand and backhand," Nadal said afterwards.

"The problem is when he's serving, you don't have many chances. You are under pressure the whole match."

Nadal said he was pleased to see a more focused Kyrgios at this Australian Open, the 24-year-old's best performance at a Grand Slam since he reached the fourth round in Melbourne two years ago. 

"When he's focused on what he's doing, I think he's a very important player for our sport because he has a big talent," Nadal said. 

"He's one of these players that can be very, very interesting for the crowd. I am never against his way or style to play. When I criticize him in the past is because I think he did a couple of things that are not right and are not the right image for our sport and for the kids. But when he's doing the right things, I am the first one who support this. 

“I think everybody likes to watch Nick plays when he's able to play like this. His talent is to be one of the best of the world, without a doubt, with good chances to fight for every tournament."