It’s not a sight you see usually on a tennis court: Nick Kyrgios telling the crowd to calm down, calmly.
Well as calmly as Kyrgios could. Match point up, against Gilles Simon, he was about to serve a second serve when the Melbourne Arena still rang with cheers. Kyrgios gestured them to calm down, then served a 218-kmph ace down the middle to seal the contest. Every Aussie in the stadium, and maybe over the world, was pulling for him on the day.
Though Kyrgios has been quite a divisive figure in the world of tennis, and in his home country, the 24-year-old is playing with a new sense of purpose and solemnity in the New Year. He led the Australian bushfire relief efforts in the sport and was at his roaring best when playing for the country in the newly instated ATP Cup.
“Things happening at the moment, they're much larger than all of this,” Kyrgios had said at the beginning of the tournament. “At the same time, I have to find the balance. I have to go out there and try to get the best out of my game. But I think when I'm playing, at the moment I'm playing for a lot more than myself.”
He won the opening round against Lorenzo Sonego and survived an emotional lapse late in the third set to beat Simon 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 in two hours and 49 minutes at the Australian Open on Thursday.
His second round was an interesting match-up on paper. While Kyrgios has been routinely accused of wasting his ability, even punished by the ATP for not trying hard enough on occasions, Simon is a master at maximising his talents. A crafty counter-puncher, the 35-year-old has years of experience of taking on big names and doesn’t get fazed by much. He is just the kind of relentless retriever that could get under the temperamental Australian’s skin.
But Kyrgios was a picture of composure in the opening set. He hit 14 winners and had only two unforced errors. The serve was working well; he fired five aces and won 77% of the first serve points. Kyrgios didn’t mind getting dragged into the longer rallies, and played them out patiently.
The one time that he did veer from the ‘means business’ brief was when he was given a warning for time violation while serving for the second set at 5-4. Usually one of the quickest servers in the game, Kyrgios responded by mimicking World No 1 Rafael Nadal’s pre-serve routine. Even the umpire couldn’t help smiling at it.
The much-anticipated meltdown came in the middle of the third set, when Kyrgios was seemingly coasting to victory at two sets and 4-2 up. Simon survived, on his serve, a close seventh game, which went on for four deuce points. He saved a breakpoint and snatched the game after Kyrgios pulled the trigger too early on a backhand.
In the next five minutes, the Australian lost his serve twice. He conceded the eighth game with two back-to-back double faults and failed to win a single point on his serve on the 10th. His player box, which included Australia’s last men’s Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt, encouraged him and told him to ‘stay tough’.
That was enough to send Kyrgios on the edge. “Absolutely flying colours,” he told them off. “So creative. So creative. So creative. Out of all the things you could say: ‘Stay tough.’ Thanks, man. Thanks. That’s what I get on every breakpoint. Wow. Wow. Wow. ‘Stay tough,’ yep. That’s good, that’s good. Shit. Shit.”
Fortunately for Kyrgios, his box and his fans, it didn’t escalate into something bigger and uglier, which has happened in the past. The Australian pocketed his first service game in the fourth set at love and was back trading blows with Simon.
Given a new lease of life in the third set, the experienced Frenchman brought his best in the fourth. He served at a much higher percentage (77% first serves in), was returning more aggressively and moving the Australian well around the court. He absorbed Kyrgios’ pace and returned it with interest. The two exchanged some long, intense rallies, a couple of which went over 20 shots.
Kyrgios, rather than losing his mind, kept his head down and got on with the grind. As the set progressed, the balance of power shifted subtly but surely. Kyrgios, the more powerful of the two, started winning the longer rallies. Through the match, the Australian won 68 points on rallies shorter than four shots, while Simon won 55 points, but even on rallies more than five shots, the Australian was better: 53 to Simon’s 50.
The crowd at the compact Melbourne Arena was getting restless as the players battled on to 5-5. Much to their delight, Kyrgios pulled off two backhand winners to go up 0-40 on Simon’s serve.
The Frenchman fought back, displaying some amazing percentage play, to erase all three. But a double fault, only his third of the match, gave Kyrgios another chance. And the Australian grabbed it, opening up the court with a cracking backhand cross-court and then putting away the short response. He served out the match, at 15, without much drama and with his 28th ace of the match.
“I definitely lost my way in the third set,” Kyrgios said in the on-court interview. “And could have gone to a very dark place in the fourth but I somehow pulled it away.”
It is still early days in the tournament and difficult to say if the controversial Australian has mended his ways. But his performance against Simon, where he hit 67 winners, was one of his more matured.
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2020 20:31:39 IST