Nick Kyrgios reverts to type in Australian Open exit
Tempermental Aussie’s loss of composure again proves detrimental to his hopes
Australia’s Nick Kyrgios prepares to serve against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov during their men’s singles fourth round match at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty
For all the talk of a rebooted, matured Nick Kyrgios, Sunday night’s match with the world number three Grigor Dimitrov saw the Australian decisively lose his cool with the biggest prize of the tournament so far – and a repeat of his 2015 quarter-final appearance – on the line.
Staring down the barrel of a straight-sets exit, Kyrgios threw caution to the wind, claiming an unruly third set before steadying to force Dimitrov to produce his best tennis to close out a thriller 7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.
Kyrgios raged at his box frequently during the first and second sets, apparently unhappy about the way his racket had been strung; “you had all day to figure it out” was one of many retorts aimed their way. Ironic clapping was not uncommon, while at one point he cried rhetorically, “only me, huh?”
It took him until the midway point of the second set to send it for restringing, but by then the psychological damage had been done; regular bouts of head-shaking and muttering crept into his game and took his attention off a very evenly-matched opponent who finally hit form after so nearly being sent packing by the American qualifier Mackenzie McDonald in round two.
Speaking on court after the conclusion of the match, Dimitrov said it had been “frustrating” to play such an unpredictable opponent.
“Playing against Nick is always tricky,” he said. “Two weeks ago I lost against him, and [again] he was serving unbelievable, playing unbelievable. He fought really hard. It’s one of those matches you have to take any opportunity you have.
“Even when I was serving for the match, I felt it wasn’t over. I’m just glad to get through.”
It was a frustrating end to a fine tournament for a man of such talent, and evident capacity to learn and improve. Made to wait an hour because of the late finish to Rafael Nadal’s match before it, crowds continued to filter into a packed Rod Laver Arena with expectation and support for Australia’s last remaining Grand Slam hope.
Several elements of Kyrgios’ game were at their most impressive. He whipped forehands across the net like never before in the tournament. His serve was equally effective, the number 17 seed firing off 36 aces, with regular 203km second serves a highlight and also indicative of Kyrgios’ unpredictability.
At times his capacity to keep Dimitrov guessing was a key strength, at others it seemed to showcase his (at worst) lackadaisical attitude: the man who has professed to love basketball more than tennis regularly dribbled the ball between his legs pre-service, while he alsohit several ineffective “tweeners”.
By the third set, Kyrgios threw caution to the wind and backed his forehand to do maximum damage. At times this was effective; at others it was predictably overcooked. Occasionally he leapt into the air as he struck the ball, as much in frustration as to generate power and it rarely paid off.
He also tried racing into the court on return, like a batsman advancing down the crease to a spinner, but it was likewise rarely effective. His serve, however, pulled him back from the brink, before at 2-2 he was given respite when Dimitrov lost focus and in turn, his serve. It was enough to invite Kyrgios back into the match, whose chaotic approach and power serving delivered the set.
After a high-octane third, the fourth inevitably backed off in intensity, games going at first to serve. At 1-2 down, however, Kyrgios faced several break points, eventually rallying for a crowd-lifting hold. At 2-2, the Australian produced some remarkable tennis, at one point laughing incredulously at his own performance, before Dimitrov produced several clutch serves to hold in return.
Then, at 3-4 and a break point down, Kyrgios faced a wide open court only to pull his overhead smash into the net. In a final twist, Dimitrov failed to close out the set, distracted by a rowdy crowd member who shouted as he attempted to serve. Credit, should, however go to Kyrgios; his renewed focus and apparent recalibration forced a deserved tiebreak.
In the end, Dimitrov was too steady and too strong, impressing with the mental steel some have previously speculated is lacking from his game. But, after a breakthrough ATP finals win in 2017, 2018 promises further heights for a legitimate threat to the Australian title.
There could well be a semi-final rematch between Dimitrov and Nadal, who survived a near four-hour marathon against pint-sized Argentinian powerhouse Diego Schwartzman, eventually winning 6-3 6-7 (4/7) 6-3 6-3.
The victory ensured Nadal will stay world number one whatever happens in the rest of the tournament, but he knows he will need to play better against sixth seed Marin Cilic in the next round.
He said: “It was a good test. I prefer to win in two hours than in four but moments like these help to be more confident in yourself, in your body.
“The most important thing for me is after not playing anything before here I am able to be in the quarter-finals. I played some great matches. Today was a little bit worse for moments, but I resisted very well. I’m going to need to play with more determination with my forehand in the next match. I am focusing on trying to make it.”
Cilic, who defeated Pablo Carreno Busta 6-7 (2/7) 6-3 7-6 (7/0) 7-6 (7/3), reached his second Grand Slam final at Wimbledon last season and has set himself lofty goals for 2018.
The former US Open champion said: “Throughout my career I knew that if I’m at the top of my game, I can challenge most of the guys on the tour and, with the win at the US Open, that just became stronger. My goal in this year is to win a Grand Slam. One or more would be good.”