Good Nick beats Bad Nick as Kyrgios progresses to third round
This contest against Gilles Simon proved the cliche about matches of two halves
Nick Kyrgios of Australia reacts after winning his second round match against Gilles Simon of France. Photograph: EPA
At war with himself as much as his opponent, Nick Kyrgios progressed to the third round of the Australian Open with a 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 win over Frenchman Gilles Simon in Melbourne. It was a contest that proved the cliche about matches of two halves. For two sets Kyrgios was the focused and ruthless version of himself that could frighten the entire grand slam draw. For the second half of the match his head was spinning faster than his backhand slice.
The initial stages of the match did not remotely hint at the minor chaos ahead, which is kind of the whole point of Kyrgios. The Australian pounced instantly, breaking the world No 61 in the first game. As in his round one win over Lorenzo Sonego, it was Kyrgios’s composure and efficiency that stood out in the first set. In the seventh game he broke again, charging Simon’s second serve and thumping a backhand winner down the line. In 27 minutes there were only two unforced errors, and plenty of productive forays to the net.
Not for the first time, Australian fans imposed themselves on the contest in irritating style, with chants that were a day late and a dollar short. As early as his third service game, Simon was made to wait as one bright spark led a round of “If you’re Aussie and you know it clap your hands”. To his credit, the Frenchman was merely bemused by the inane impositions. To judge by his interactions with the press, Kyrgios has a very active cringe reflex. It probably got a workout tonight.
The second set started identically to the first: Kyrgios broke serve and bounced excitedly back to his chair, then carried the momentum into a series of clinical service games. This was the smarter, focused, energy-saving tennis he had so often failed to deliver in the past, instead letting matches drag on too long, wandering his way into briar patches. Now it was Simon losing his rag, screaming to the heavens and slapping his racquet against his head. The set had slipped away from him in 39 minutes.
Like clockwork, Kyrgios began the third set with another break, established by a long rally and a gorgeous, curling forehand winner. Simon, on the other hand, still couldn’t take a trick: twice he was caught off guard by innocuous tweeners that Kyrgios saved for low-stakes moments, committing unforced errors in response. The result seemed a foregone conclusion, which is always dangerous territory for Kyrgios.
Sure enough, the night changed complexion soon after and with it, Kyrgios’s mood. Still boyish and agile at 35, Simon wore his younger opponent down and claimed two breaks to take the set in 54 minutes. As he is wont to do, Kyrgios attributed this sudden and dramatic reversal in his fortunes to a few anodyne words of encouragement from his corner: “Of all the things you could say to me: ‘stay tough’?” he barked. “Every break point – stay tough.” This formulation, he ranted, was not only unhelpful, but “mind-boggling.” The effect certainly was.
To his credit, by 5-5 in the fourth set, Kyrgios had calmed himself by a decisive measure and mounted his counterattack. He conjured three break points, lifting most of the 10,500 fans inside Melbourne Arena to their feet. Simon dug in again, saving each of them, but then double-faulted to gift Kyrgios another opportunity. He took it, then the match, holding a finger to his ear to ratchet up the applause before firing an ace down the middle to seal it.
Ahead of Kyrgios now, most likely, are 16th seed Karen Khachanov and world No 1 Rafael Nadal, the latter of whom had his service routine mocked by Kyrgios tonight – just one in a series of highly entertaining but inadvisable moves by the local hero. Neither Khachanov nor Nadal would relish playing an inspired Kyrgios. But both know his frailties, as evidenced tonight when the civil war between Good Nick and Bad Nick flared up again inside Kyrgios’s head. If those two personas could play against each other, it would either revolutionise or end tennis.
Two points of greater interest occurred off the court. Before it began, in the bowels of Melbourne Park, Kyrgios paced nervously, staring at the floor, the signature headphones pulled tight over his ears, determinedly avoiding small talk with milling players and officials. Two nights ago, he admitted he’d been as nervous as he’d ever been before hitting the court in his home grand slam. Here again was proof that despite what the critics claim, despite what Kyrgios himself sometimes claims, the game really does matter to him. The fourth set reconfirmed that view.
The other was the atmosphere in Kyrgios’s entourage. In the past, the tone has tended to be set by Kyrgios’s brother, Christos, his loudest backer but occasionally a distracting one. On Tuesday night it was a calmer scene, aided by the presence of old sweats Tony Roche and Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt was there again tonight, staring ahead like a sunburnt eagle. Surely, you thought, this is the man best suited to the task of harnessing Australian sport’s least tameable talent. From here, he’ll probably just be avoiding the words “stay tough”.