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Australian Open 2018: Well-behaved Nick Kyrgios keeps emotions in check to get past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

It didn’t take Nick Kyrgios much time to get his first warning of the match; a time violation. The umpire made it clear during the toss that both Kyrgios and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had to be ready to start 30 seconds after warm-up ended.

Instead, the temperamental Australian decided to change shirts, while Tsonga waited on court.

You’d feel, given Kyrgios’ track record, that he was already on the verge of snapping. The proverbial ‘angry young man’ somehow always has that air about him. Among the well-behaved generation of players heralded by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and labeled by some as ‘boring’, Kyrgios is the bad boy. He had walked into court wearing big, bold head phones; the hair fashioned in a mohawk and sporting glittering earring. He had always been flamboyant, now could he focus?

Nick Kyrgios returns to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday. AP

Nick Kyrgios returns to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday. AP

He took charge in his first service game, winning it in 49 seconds.

Ever since his exciting win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, Kyrgios has time and again showed that he has the game to make it big in tennis. And then there would be long phases when the Australian would be drowning in his self-inflicted problems: disrespecting opponents, not being committed enough (for which he has been fined) and seemingly wasn’t in love with the game that had brought him worldwide fame, or infamy.

But the hot-headed Australian had uncharacteristically played it cool this time around. His biggest test down under came on Thursday when he took on the big-hitting Tsonga, who had already dispatched the explosive Denis Shapovalov. Kyrgios kept his head down, emotions in check and came up with, of all things, a composed 7-5(5), 4-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(5) win over Tsonga to enter the fourth round of the Australian Open. It was his first win on the biggest stage of his home Slam: the Rod Laver Arena.

With one of his favourite actors, Will Smith, watching from the sidelines and his tennis hero Tsonga across the net, Kyrgios behaved himself. And showed that when he has his wits about him the 22-year-old can give some display of big serving and clean hitting.

Composure was the key in the close contest. All the statistics at the end of the match were in favour of Tsonga. The Frenchman had a better percentage of points won on first serve (87 to 79), converted more breakpoints (two compared to Kyrgios’ one), hit more winners (70 to 54) and won a total of 144 points compared to the Australian’s 142.

The difference was how well each would play in the three tie-breakers. Tsonga might have kept pace during the tie-breaks, but Kyrgios kept his nerve. He looked sharp physically and emotionally and is now one of those dangerous floaters in the tournament now.

It was all a part of the plan and the goals that he’d set for the season. “One thing that he really wanted to improve on this year was his Grand Slam performances,” said Australia Davis Cup captain and two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt before the tournament started. Hewitt was one of the people who had helped Kyrgios regroup last season. Rather than admonishing the youngster, who had been criticised for his attitude by many and almost all in his country, Hewitt stood up for him and gave him a healthy team atmosphere he required to thrive in the Cup competition.

“He was disappointed with how they were in 2017 and he’s going to get his shot in a couple of weeks,” the 36-year-old added. “He’s hit enough balls. His ball striking is there a lot of times and now it’s about getting mentally and physically ready to go out and battle.”

So far the World No 17 has made a bright start to the season, when he picked up his fourth ATP title, and first on home soil, at the season opener in Brisbane.

“Obviously, getting a good start in Brisbane helped,” Kyrgios said. “I feel like I’m making improvements. Physically I feel really good. Just gives me confidence in my game. I know mentally I’m a lot better as well.”

On Thursday, there were times when Kyrgios still berated himself on court after making errors and swore during a change-of-ends break — questioning his playing doubles in searing heat the previous day. But he reigned it in quickly and was up for the challenge when it was time to play ball. Kyrgios kept the intensity up while sparring with the experienced Frenchman. And though the stats did favour Tsonga, Kyrgios committed 28 unforced errors compared to his opponent’s 39.

The most telling was at match point, when Tsonga’s inside-out forehand drive down the line caught the net.

Tsonga was well and truly beaten by the mercurial youngster, but feels there’s much more still to come. “To be honest, for the moment he's still building his game. I think he still needs time to improve. With his game already, he can do some damage. The most important in tennis I think is to believe in it. I think he's got it," he said.

Kyrgios has reached the quarter-finals of a Major twice before, at the 2015 Australian Open and Wimbledon Championships a year earlier. Now Grigor Dimitrov stands in his way for a third quarter-final appearance.

The Bulgarian himself has come into the season after taking his game up a level. The World No 3 won the ATP Finals last year, beating David Goffin in the final, but did lose to Kyrgios in Brisbane a few weeks back. That was the first glimpse of the new well-behaved Kyrgios — a man who has seemingly evolved from being a notorious tantrum-throwing waste of talent. Kyrgios 2.0, perhaps.

There will be expectations from the improved version Kyrgios to deliver a win again. “To win a Slam is not easy. You've got to win seven best-of-five-sets matches against absolute quality players,” Hewitt said. “So it's not going to be easy for him but if he can survive that first week, anything can happen.”


Updated Date: Jan 20, 2018 13:10 PM

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