7pm, five hours until lockdown. Nick Kyrgios emerges into the John Cain Arena for his third-round tie with Dominic Thiem. The sky overhead is Australian Open blue, and there's something special in the air.
Kyrgios is in full wiseguy mode. There’s a glint in his eye that Joe Pesci would approve of; playfully malevolent. This is his stage, and he knows it. Before a ball is struck in anger the 25-year-old urges the crowd to interact.
Then someone coughs and reality bites. Everyone in Victoria has been ordered to stay home for the next five days, from midnight. The pandemic is on the doorstep but because epidemiologists have to give public health officials a head start there are thousands of people crammed together screaming themselves hoarse. The stadium announcer reminds patrons they must be home by 11.59pm. Sandwiches are two for the price of one in a Garden Square fire sale. Nobody will eat them tomorrow.
8pm, four hours until lockdown. Kyrgios breaks Thiem in the opening game. The noise is primal. The US Open champion is being fed to the lions. Before the end of game two Kyrgios has attempted an underarm serve and a half-volley between his legs at the net. He communes with the crowd during the change of ends. It is part tennis, part megachurch rapture.
Kyrgios's huge serve pushes Thiem's returning position close to the back wall. In his white top the Austrian could be mistaken for an English cricketer fielding on the fence in front of a braying Bay 13 at the neighbouring MCG. "Please!" chair umpire Damien Dumusois beseeches throughout the night, but to little avail. The roar that greets Kyrgios wrapping up the first set 6-4 is volcanic.
9pm, three hours until lockdown. The backhand exchanges, from Thiem’s cultured single-hander to Kyrgios’s blunt two-handed bunt are precise. The forehands from both men are huge, especially when Thiem connects on the move. Even Kyrgios is full of admiration. “That’s beautiful,” he purrs when a backhand fizzes past him down the line. “That’s a hell of a shot,” he offers to a crosscourt pass, before winning the second set 6-4 with an underarm serve.
The only person in the arena sitting down is Dumusois. The noise is ear-splitting. Arms appear from rows behind to hammer the seats in front. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club this ain’t.
For two hours Kyrgios has raged against the machine. But unfortunately for the world No 47, unless there’s a malfunction, machines just keep going. It took Thiem 11 service games to earn a break point, but when he does he finds three, and converts one of them.
No more Mr Wiseguy. Kyrgios starts shaking his head and muttering. The hushed crowd allows the warning for an audible obscenity to be heard clearly. Thiem wins consecutive service games to love. We’re going deep.
10pm, two hours until lockdown. Thiem’s fortitude is astonishing. For three sets he has been jeered and heckled from the stands. Implacable in the face of the onslaught, there are no histrionics as the pendulum turns. A change of coach two years ago has helped liberate the 27-year-old, and he has matured from promising clay-court star to a season-long contender.
The same cannot be said about Kyrgios. After inciting a mob for an hour and a half he then begins a running battle with Dumusois over the umpire’s inability to control the crowd. To the surprise of nobody, the Australian has two opponents to deal with, Thiem, and the demon hijacking his own limbic system.
The match is now on Thiem’s racket, and Thiem’s racket swings truly for a majestic forehand cross-court winner to secure his second break of the night. Kyrgios repeatedly rams the strings of his device into his forehead. They’re going five. Of course they are.
You can see the plot unravelling like spools of Spiderman’s webbing as Kyrgios arcs his fingers in despair. But he has the sense to copy Thiem and take a toilet break. When he returns the madness hasn’t disappeared, but there is more method to it.
The Hollywood shots are back, so are shorter points and rowdier involvement from the stands. But all the while Thiem just keeps on keeping on, like a lighthouse in a storm.
At 3-3 it’s a toss up, but Thiem finds four winners in the 46th game of the match to unlock a decisive third break. He follows it up with a hold to love that ends with the shot of the match, a backhand half-volley winner from the baseline that was equal parts balletic and brutal. It concludes a searching examination passed with flying colours.
11pm, one hour until lockdown. Fans spill out onto Olympic Boulevard and over the Tanderrum Bridge, dazed and confused. The blue skies of hours earlier have long given way to darkness. The lights of the CBD twinkle in the distance, but the city sleeps tonight. For the sake of this increasingly engrossing grand slam, hopefully it awakens soon.
Midnight, transmission interrupted. Lockdown initiated. - Guardian