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Nick Kyrgios Holds His Temper, and Australia Holds Its Breath

Nick Kyrgios Holds His Temper, and Australia Holds Its Breath
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Kurt Streeter

MELBOURNE, Australia — Nick Kyrgios was not willing to be hunted.

During the opening points of his Australian Open match against the wily veteran Gilles Simon — known for his ability to lure opponents into deadly traps with deceiving softballs and sudden bursts — Kyrgios did not take the bait.

Instead, on a hazy Thursday night, the mercurial Australian played the start of this second-round match in a way that belied his reputation. He was controlled, contained, comfortable, and mature.

The result, early on: perfection. It was Simon who made the errors, Simon who became the prey.

Kyrgios, 24, tall, rangy and slope-shoulderedtook the first set in a mere 27 minutes, 6-2.

At that moment, as Melbourne Arena trembled with cheers, it was hard not to jump ahead and wonder about how this tournament and this year could unfold for Nick Kyrgios.

Largely because of that vibe, there is nobody, at least among the top men’s players, who so easily taps into the youthful fans that tennis is desperate to attract as its future lifeblood.

Is he the wayward soul who has played large chunks of matches by simply going through the motions, essentially quitting?

Or is Kyrgios the game competitor who, in 2014, at age 19, announced himself to the tennis world by beating Nadal on his way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals?

He has beaten not only Nadal, but also Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Few can say that. But his ranking of 26 remains mired in the broad no-man’s land that exists just outside the top 10. Despite constant talk that he was capable of stepping to the fore and upending the Big 3 hierarchy in men’s tennis, his last trip as far as a quarterfinal in a major was in 2015.

It’s hard to watch Kyrgios — with his wide smile, his style, his penchant for pulling off trick shots, his fierce serve and searing forehand, his oh-so obvious talent — and not fall for him.

And it is hard, at the same time, not to be left wanting and disappointed.

Kyrgios seemed utterly in control for a very long swath against the 35-year-old Simon.

But then the finish line drew near. Just a few games from the clean sweep of a three-set win, Kyrgios’s lesser self emerged. Soon, he was missing easy shots. Suddenly, he radiated tightness.

He had already chirped at the umpire when admonished for delaying play, and mockingly mimicked Nadal’s time wasting tic of tugging on his shorts and tussling with his hair. The message was clear, and brought to mind the pleadings of a child: Nadal gets away with it — why can’t I?

Now, Kyrgios looked and sounded equally petulant as he began heaping a barrage of barbs at friends and advisers near the court, as if they were to blame for his shoddy play down the stretch.

The general look among the faces in the overwhelmingly Australian crowd became one of stricken, nervous worry. They want to believe in Kyrgios the way they believe in the women’s top seed, another of their own, Ashleigh Barty. The difference is they can count on Barty. They know what to expect: unwavering effort, quiet humility. They don’t know what they’ll get with Kyrgios. They had seen him self destruct plenty of times before.

“He’s on the edge now, of something not good happening,” said one of the commentators on Australian TV. The commentator was John McEnroe, who of course is as expert as any at diagnosing the fraying emotions of a player on the verge of losing control.

Sure enough, the wheels wobbled all the way off. Simon rose up and snatched the third set. What seemed like a sure thing was now a fight.

The match marched forward, and as the games went on in the fourth set, Kyrgios’s mood only got worse. He would describe himself after the match as being close to going to entering a “dark place.”

But something interesting happened along the way. Watching closely, you could see him change. He stopped looking up at the stands, put an end to the salty barbs. His sloping posture straightened. His face grew focused, serious, intent. He began playing with just enough control to be dangerous again.

He dug deep, centered himself, and found his footing.

Soon enough he edged ahead, the front-runner once more, just in time.

Match point.

The crowd roared, insisting he end it. He tossed the ball toward the pitch-dark sky, struck it with as much force and clarity as any ball he had struck all night.

Ace.

Game, set, match, Kyrgios: 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.

Nothing is ever certain when he takes the court. Maybe he will flame out in the next round. Maybe he will keep going, perhaps all the way to the last weekend. Nadal potentially awaits in the fourth round. What a contrast. The ultimate professional versus the ultimate question mark. There does not appear to be much love between them. It would be one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.

The potential of that was enough on this raucous evening to savor the moment, to fall for the full range of the quixotic and talented Kyrgios as he found his way to a spirit-lifting win.



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