With Cross and Racquet

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

PARIS—The scoreline reads: Second round – No. 10 Cilic d. Kyrgios, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. Your brain says, “Move on folks, nothing to see here. Wonder how Tsonga did?” This is understandable. After all, the scoreline does tell you the most important part. But it never, ever tells you the most interesting part.

So it was with Nicholas Hilmy Kyrgios, known as Nick, and the more familiar Marin Cilic. Kyrgios, a wild-card entry, happens to be the youngest player in the men’s singles draw. He’s 17, the top junior in the world, and reigning Australian Open junior champ. He seems to personify John McEnroe’s oft-stated wish that some of the athletes lost to basketball in the U.S. would choose tennis.

Kyrgios is a 6’3” Aussie of Greek-Malaysian extraction, and he forswore a promising career in basketball to focus on tennis at age 14. It appears to have been a wise move, even if the NBA lost a whippet-lean point guard in the process.

I saw a bit of Kyrgios’ first-round upset of Radek Stepanek in three tiebreakers the other day, and was sufficiently impressed to bivouac at Court 7 for his clash with Cilic. There were a couple of Aussies of a certain vintage in the press/player guest section. While they waited for the match to start, they chatted like a couple of dinosaurs gathered beside the lava lake, invoking the names of Newcombe, Stolle, and even Laver as reference points for their speculation on Kyrgios’ style and technique.

It was odd, because while Australia was once the most homogeneous of nations, it’s evolved into something like the United Nations of tennis. Is there a nation with more quality players who are immigrants or even refugees, or whose parents were? (Bernard Tomic, Marinko Matosevic, and Jarmila Gajdosova, to name a few.) It speaks well of the continent nation that so many of these newly minted Aussies make it into the developmental pipeline.

Kyrgios was a little apprehensive before the match, even though Cilic had invited him to practice just a week ago. “It was an honor,” Kyrgios would say after this match. “I didn’t want to make mistakes, I wanted to do everything perfect—good feeds, all that.”

This was different, though. This was for keeps. And Kyrgios felt a little overwhelmed as he watched Cilic walk onto the court. “He looked so professional,” he said. “I was a bit too focused on what he was doing, not what I needed to do.”

But this kid didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. During the warm-up, Kyrgios eschewed tradition and after taking a few serves, he walked to the other side—Cilic’s service box—to get a sneak a peek at what lay in store. He gulped. “I was wanting to get a look at his serve, but he hit two aces past me and another one wide. I thought, ‘Gee, that’s pretty good.’”

A bit intimidated and lacking body fat for insulation, Kyrgios was unable to get the blood flowing into his right arm—it’s a long trip from the heart at the best of times—quickly on this chilly, cloudy morning. He lost eight straight points to fall behind 0-2 right off the bat.

But Kyrgios has a wicked serve, and pretty soon he was chugging right along, giving as good as he got. Although he’s given to the occasional, guttural roar of triumph or self-admonition, Kyrgios reminds me of Pete Sampras. He mopes around between points, hanging his head and hunched over like an octogenarian, then steps to the service line to rain down brimstone, going on to imitate Gumby in a rally if the ball happens to come back.

Kyrgios’ ground game is in tune with the times: He has a howitzer-grade forehand, but it’s the backhand that’s intriguing—in a good way. He hits it after a very compact, Andre Agassi-like backswing (that will serve him well on grass in in couple of weeks), and sometimes hits so flat that you can read the writing on the ball as it travels across the net. He can spin the backhand, too, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on that increasingly obligatory down-the-line point-ender off either wing. For one so big and young, Kyrgios moves his gunboats across the court well, and he showed his competitive mien the other day when he outlasted Stepanek in the third consecutive tiebreaker of their match, 13-11.

But Cilic was playing awfully well. If the rangy Croatian has a problem beyond a shortfall of inspiration at big moments, it’s that his game is so classic—so smooth and understated—that it’s easily overlooked. He presented an interesting contrast to Kyrgios, who is wristy and loose in every way that the ramrod-straight Cilic is not.

That lone, early break was enough to see Cilic through the first set. Kyrgios then struggled to hold in the first game of the second set. On his second game point, Cilic nailed a pretty, crisp, down-the-line forehand. Kyrgios challenged, but the umpire examined the mark and upheld the call. Before his next serve, Kyrgios glanced at Cilic and quickly and subtly tapped the ball against his strings, as if to apologize for having questioned such a fine shot. It was a nice, telling gesture.

They proceeded on serve until the fifth game, when Kyrgios was quickly and easily broken thanks to a few massive returns by Cilic and a few sloppy errors of his own. Over the previous games, Kyrgios would sometimes touch has upper left hamstring, or made a halting step. He called for trainer after yielding that 2-3 break, and he was worked on, lying on a towel in front of his chair, for a solid 10 minutes.

“The hamstring was okay, it should be fine,” Kyrgios said later. “What happened is that he stepped up and made a lot of returns. He put me on my back foot, it was a bit surprising because in juniors I’m used to hitting the big serve and then stepping in to dictate. I needed to raise my level of intensity there, but unfortunately I made some errors. It was a turning point. He got into a bit of a zone.”

It’s an accurate analysis, and helps explain why the match slid away from Krygios so dramatically after that break. For after a quick hold, Cilic blitzed the young Aussie’s serve again for an insurance break and served it out. Kyrgios was broken to start the third set, and it took all the effort he could muster to collect two more games.

So the scoreline suggests a blowout, but the tale told by the match was that of a learning experience at a number of levels.

Kyrgios is an articulate kid who wears a racquet and a cross of gold around his neck. He speaks quickly, with barely any accent. He’s an emotional boy who admits that he used to “cause a lot of trouble” until he learned to rein in his feelings. He confessed having wept when he lost in the junior event here last year. When it was pointed out to him that Roger Federer had cried when he was beaten by Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open a few years, Kyrgios quipped: “Yeah, he made me cry, also.”

Kyrgios was crushed today by an elite player at the very top of the game. He was okay with that, in a good way—a way that suggests he’ll be adequately realistic, patient and self-forgiving in the tough years to come. “I wouldn’t change this for anything, the way this week went,” he said. “It was a tough situation but I really had a lot of fun out there today.”

The big takeaway from this main-draw experience is that Kyrgios needs to get fitter and stronger. “The biggest thing is being able to back it up day after day. I only played three sets in my first round, and you have to be ready to play five. Marin looked really fresh out there today and he exploited me, a lot. My weight of shot compared to his was right up there, but he just kept the pressure on.”

Overall, he said, “It was a mind-blowing experience to win that first round. And to go up against Marin Cilic—some day in the future I’ll be able to tell that to my kids. . .if I have kids.”

I have a feeling he’ll have kids one day, and have a heck of a lot more to tell them.

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