Nick Kyrgios electrified Melbourne Arena on Saturday night with a marathon win over Karen Khachanov – can he bring the same devastating tennis to Rod Laver Arena and a Monday night clash with world no. 1 Rafael Nadal, with a place in the final of the Australian Open on the line?
Nadal vs Kyrgios is live from Melbourne on Monday 27 January at 7pm local/8am GMT
Kyrgios’s four-hour, 26-minute win over Khachanov 6-2, 7-6(5), 6-7(6), 6-7(7), 7-6(8), in which the Australian had to rebound from letting match points slip in the third and fourth sets and was himself two points from defeat when he trailed 7-8 in the fifth-set match tie-break, would have been the unquestioned match of the tournament were it not for Roger Federer’s equally dramatic win over John Millman the previous day.
The 24-year-old called it ‘one of the craziest matches I’ve ever been part of’ and said he was still struggling to process all the emotions when he came into his press conference some time later, and if that doesn’t sound like perfect preparation for playing Nadal in the fourth round, well, it isn’t.
Kyrgios famously beat Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2014 as a little-known wildcard, but has only made one Grand Slam quarterfinal since, and that was at the Australian Open in 2015. Part of the reason for that, in my opinion, is a tendency to play lengthy matches that are emotionally and mentally as much as physically draining, which compromise Kyrgios’s ability to compete later in the tournament and when he comes up against the top players.
It’s what we saw last year at Wimbledon, when Kyrgios ended up going to five sets, including ending up on the wrong end of a bagel set, against compatriot Jordan Thompson in the first round, and then came out flat against Nadal in the second round, more or less spotting the Spaniard the first set. It did end up being a competitive four-set encounter, but it never really felt like it was hanging in the balance in the way it might have had Kyrgios not, as he acknowledged, got off to a slow start:
‘Every time you put up a battle like that against Rafa, you’re going to take confidence from it. Two tough tie-breaks. There’s nothing in that match really. He changed up his game plan a little bit.
‘I’ll probably expect him to serve a little bit more to my forehand when I play him in a couple days. That’s what he did at Wimbledon. He had some pretty good success there. I thought he played really well at Wimbledon. I came out a little slow. But the grass just seemed so slow. I couldn’t really break him down.’
Nadal has absolutely breezed through his matches so far, dropping five games in the first round against Hugo Dellien; he was pushed to a tie-break in one set in the second round of Federico Delbonis, but that was mainly due to an abysmal break-point conversion rate. Against 27th seed Pablo Carreno Busta in the third, Nadal completely dominated the match, taking just 98 minutes to win 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
Sometimes it isn’t good to get through the first few rounds too easily, because it then makes it difficult to raise your game when you do come up against a tough player – and Kyrgios certainly does have the weapons to hurt Nadal. But Nadal looked to be really honing his own weapons in the match against Carreno Busta, and in slow conditions, will be able to turn the fourth-round clash into a more physical battle than ever.
Nadal said after beating Carreno Busta:
‘It was my best match of the tournament so far, without a doubt. Big difference between today and the previous days.
‘I have been serving well, starting to create damage with the forehand. Hitting serve and one shot.’
Nadal owns a 4-3 lead in the head-to-head, and although Kyrgios leads the head-to-head 2-1 on hard courts, they have never played a best-of-five sets match on hard courts.
Kyrgios can never resist trying to show up Nadal, whom he notoriously described as ‘super salty’ and clearly doesn’t particularly respect, but a number of factors are against him here: The fact that he played such a long and emotional match in the last round, which suggests he’s at risk of showing up to this fourth-round encounter flat and slow; the physical glute issue which led him to take a medical time-out in the first set against Khachanov, and which reminds one of his physical fragility in general; and the shift from Melbourne Arena, where Kyrgios loves to play, to Rod Laver Arena, where it’s more difficult to generate and sustain atmosphere. Then there’s Nadal himself, whose workload lately has been heavy, but who has been winning so many matches that he’s clearly feeling very confident. I don’t know if Kyrgios will be able to grab a set for pride, but I do think that it will be Nadal who will come through to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open once again, reminding Kyrgios that for all his first-week heroics, when it comes to the second week, Kyrgios is a mere sideshow while he, Nadal, is the main event.