World No. 1, Rafael Nadal withstood a stern challenge from Nick Kyrgios on Monday night to move into the quarter finals of the Australian Open for the 12th time in his career.
Much of the build-up to the match was dominated by the perceived animosity between the two men, but it was the quality of tennis that stole the show on Monday, with both men elevating their levels to deliver a gripping contest.
That Nadal would play at a very high level was not really under question, but what was up for debate was whether Kyrgios could find his best form and challenge the great Spaniard.
A huge basketball fan, Kyrgios was visibly shaken by the death of the legendary NBA star, Kobe Bryant- the Australian walked on to the court with an LA Lakers jersey bearing Bryant’s name- and was close to tears as he sat on his chair. Perhaps that played a part in his slow start to Monday’s fourth round clash as he struggled to get going during the exchanges. However, Kyrgios soon settled into his task, finding his massive first serve more consistently and troubling Nadal with his power from the back of the court and audacious shot-making.
Arguably, the most impressive part of his performance was his movement, and his willingness chase down seemingly lost causes.
It wasn’t enough for the Aussie in the end, as Nadal dug deep to record a 6-3 3-6 7-6 7-6 victory.
“When he’s focused on what he’s doing, I think he’s a very important player for our sport because he has a big talent,” Nadal said of Kyrgios.
“He’s one of these players that can be very, very interesting for the crowd. I am never against his way or style to play. When I criticize him in the past is because I think he did a couple of things that are not right and are not the right image for our sport and for the kids. But when he’s doing the right things, I am the first one who support this.
“I think everybody likes to watch Nick plays when he’s able to play like this. His talent is to be one of the best of the world, without a doubt, with good chances to fight for every tournament.”
Nadal began the match like a man on a mission, attacking with his forehand at every opportunity. He got the solitary break of the opening set in the fought game, and was done with the set after just 36 minutes.
The Spaniard is one of the finest front-runners in the sport, and he moved in for the kill at the start of the second set, forcing three break points in the opening game of the match.
This was where the Kyrgios fightback began, as the Australian saved all three break points, and went on to secure a crucial hold. Roared on by a vociferous Melbourne crowd, Kyrgios raised his game significantly, and broke for the 3-1 lead with a forehand that just clipped the baseline. There were no further break points in the set with Kyrgios going on to close it out to even the contest.
Neither player could force a break of serve in the third set, which would eventually be settled in a dramatic tie break. Kyrgios went big on a second serve at 5-5 and promptly double-faulted, handing Nadal a set point, but Nadal, through a combination of nerves and some distraction from the crowd, returned the double fault favour to keep the set going. Nadal did an excellent job of wiping the slate clean, re-emerging to take the next two points, and with it, the set.
When Nadal broke for the 2-1 lead in the fourth set, it seemed only a matter of time before he finished off a fading Kyrgios. However, the Australian roused himself for one final effort. The 24-year-old kept the deficit to within one break through the set, and pounced to get the break back as Nadal faltered badly while serving the match.
Nadal would not be denied, brushing aside the disappointment of failing to serve out the match to force a tie break. The world No. 1 sealed the win on his first match point after three hours and 38 minutes, setting up a quarter final meeting with Dominic Thiem.