Nick Kyrgios stood there, soaked in sweat, shaking his head at the on-court interviewer Jim Courier. “I don’t even know what’s going on,” he said.
The Australian was drained, having survived an emotional rollercoaster, and taken his fans on one, as he edged the tireless Karen Khachanov 6-2, 7-6(5), 6-7(6), 6-7(7), 7-6(10-8) in the third round of the Australian Open on Saturday evening. It was not only one of the best wins of his career, as Kyrgios said, but also one of the most encouraging.
Kyrgios finally came up with a performance that gave a measure of his mental fortitude as much as it did of his immense talent. He overcame a leg niggle, a lapse in the third set and the disappointment of squandering a match point each in the third and fourth set, albeit on Khachanov’s serve, to clinch a berth in the round of 16.
“Honestly, my legs feel about 40 kilos each,” Kyrgios said after that marathon battle, which lasted four hours and 26 minutes. “I was losing it mentally a little. Obviously it wasn’t easy. Honestly my support team and you guys just willed me over the line. I thought I was going to lose.”
In the end, he wasn’t far from it.
Khachanov, who had survived the match tie-break in the previous round against Mikael Ymer by the exact score of 10-8, was two points away from victory and had the match on his racquet at 8-7. But the Australian, who played a more high-risk game throughout, turned it on his head as he let rip a backhand down the line to level up 8-8. Stunned, and stung, by that courageous play, the Russian missed two easy backhands to seal his exit.
It was heartbreaking for Khachanov after he had kept his nerve through the whole Nick Kyrgios show, complete with ’tweeners and tantrums.
Playing at his favoured Melbourne Arena, where Kyrgios is known as the ‘The King’, the Australian was coasting at two sets and a break up. Perhaps reeling from the physical effects of the five-setter against Ymer, Khachanov had started slowly and was easily overpowered by the local favourite in the first hour. Even though Kyrgios felt a little catch in his left leg in the second set, he sealed it in the tie-breaker.
However, like he had in the previous round against Gilles Simon, Kyrgios lost track when he was two sets and 4-2 up. The Australian imploded in a fistful of unforced errors and was only too eager for distractions. He complained to the umpire that the crowd, almost all of whom were in his favour, were shouting and cheering during the point. He then directed his ire at his box, seemingly frustrated when they didn’t help him on whether or not to challenge a line call. Both the players received a code violation for ball abuse in the third set. He held a match point at 7-6 in the tie-break, but Khachanov blew the chance out quickly and decisively.
In the fourth, the Australian got into an argument with the umpire after what he thought was a wrongful warning for time violation. For theatrical effect, Kyrgios had dived after making a superb forehand volley and scraped his hand. The umpire, oblivious to the fact that he was tending to his bleeding hand gave called for a violation. Though Kyrgios was able to push the fourth set into the tie-break, he was once again unable to seal it despite being 7-6 up.
Despite all the drama and distractions though, it was a high quality match from both the players. When the going got tough, in the last two sets, neither of them conceded serve. Even as Kyrgios sliced and diced his way through, Khachanov’s aggressive shot-making was just as effective, especially given that he was playing his second straight five-set match at a Grand Slam. Kyrgios hit 97 winners; Khachanov replied with 75 of his own. In the fifth set, the ultimate test, the two delivered four consecutive holds at love to take it to a match tie-break.
Khachanov and Kyrgios have met only twice, but in the eight sets they have played, six of them have been decided by a beaker. And it was by the thinnest of margins, and generous support from the crowd, that Kyrgios got over the line on Saturday.
“He’s an absolute warrior,” said Kyrgios of his fallen rival. “He’s a young kid; he’s younger than me by a year so he’s gonna have an unbelievable career. He’s going to be one to do some special things, that’s for sure. But, man, two back to back four hours is not easy. He’s an amazing player.”
So far, at his home Major, the Australian has played with a new-found sense of responsibility. Two days on, it will be Kyrgios’ time to take on the ultimate competitor in the sport. The Australian will play world No 1 Rafael Nadal for a place in his first Australian Open quarter-finals. They have a history, which makes the match-up interesting, but it remains to be seen if he can make it close.
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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2020 21:06:21 IST