First Ball In, 7/1: Brand New Face, Same Old Surface

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—“The thing is this surface, when you have an opponent that he decides to hit every ball ball very strong, you are in trouble.”

These were Rafael Nadal’s first words in his press conference after his upset loss at the hands of Nick Kyrgios on Tuesday. They were very similar to words he had spoken after his three wins at this tournament last week. Each of those matches had come against a player who went for his shots, and who spent the early part of the match connecting on them. Each had required Nadal to come back from a one-set deficit. And one of them, against Lukas Rosol, had been decided, in Nadal’s words, by a single point. By the end of his match with Kyrgios today, Rafa looked a little weary of facing a barrage of nothing-to-lose tennis from the other side of the net.

Live by one point, die by one point. Nadal escaped Rosol by hitting a winning forehand at 5-6 in the second-set tiebreaker. That was the difference between being two sets down, and knotted at one-set all. On Tuesday, it was Kyrgios who faced a set point on his serve at 5-6 in the third set. Again, the match had come down to this moment. Kyrgios responded by doing what he’d been doing all day: He took the racquet out of Nadal’s hands by firing an unreturnable serve. Kyrgios held and went on to win the set in a tiebreaker. Each man was broken just once on the day, but the Aussie won two tiebreakers seven points to five.

“I think I didn’t play really bad,” Nadal said. “But that’s the game in this surface. I think in the second and the third set I was better than him, but I was not able to convert that opportunities. And for the rest I think he play better than me. In general, talking about what you need to win in this surface, he did the things better than me.”

The biggest of those things, of course, was Kyrgios’s serve. He hit 37 aces, faced just three break points over four sets, and averaged 120 M.P.H. on his first deliveries. The 19-year-old, loose, in the zone, and on top of the baseline, was untouchable in the first set. His ace count allowed him to open up and take risks from the ground, and he finished with 70 winners. Nadal’s second serves were treated with disdain, as the 6’4” Kyrgios practically leaped around them to smack full-throttle forehand returns. Nadal had to work hard to get on top of rallies.

“I thought today my serve was something that got me over the line,” a controlled Kyrgios said in his own presser. Whatever happens with his game, he seems to have the right, rare mix of cockiness and composure for the big stages. “It made me be able to put pressure on his serve as well.” 

Nadal appeared disappointed but reluctantly resigned to his grass fate. He knew he could only escape so many crossfires before he got caught in one.

“I’m satisfied the way that I played this Wimbledon,” he said. “Is true that my draw was not the best one. All the matches were uncomfortable against players that didn’t give you the opportunity to play a lot.”

“That’s the sport in this surface,” Rafa repeated. “I felt in a way I’m even not angry today, because I feel that I lost the match losing only one time my serve during the whole match. I created my opportunities.”

But there was a sense of frustration at how Kyrgios was able to snuff those chances out. 

“During the whole match I had some chances,” Nadal said. “Not in the first set, but after the first set, yes. Even in the fourth, first game, love-30, [he hit] two aces, two lines. That was it. I was not able to read his serve. I tried.”

What has happened to Nadal on grass? From 2006 to 2011, he reached the final each of the five times he played Wimbledon, and won it twice. Since then, he has lost in the second round, the first round, and the fourth round. Rafa talked about the twist in his fate here today.

“The last few years I was not able to compete right,” Nadal said, “because my knee didn’t give me the chance. This year I competed well again....The problem is always the same, no? The year I won in 2010, I was losing two sets to one in second and third round against Petzschner and Robin Haase. I was able to win that kind of match. I had the chance to convert one of that opportunities. That’s something that didn’t happen today. That’s why in that year I was able to arrive to the quarterfinals. 

“Normally on grass the thing is the first week, when you compete against some players, the things are not very logical. The surface creates the opportunity so that players can play very aggressive, and they can see a real chance to win playing that style....On the other surfaces you cannot play that crazy way.”

In other words, in 2010, Nadal won the few key points that decide grass-court matches; today he didn’t. But Kyrgios is also not the same type of player as Haase or Petzschner. He has the serve and size of a traditional grass-courter. He makes it harder to convert opportunities, the same way that, say, Pete Sampras once did. 

Is the young Aussie part of a slow turn back toward attacking men’s tennis on this surface? This year’s final eight at Wimbledon does include two defensive-oriented players in Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, but five of the other six—Kyrgios, Raonic, Wawrinka, Federer, and Dimitrov—are either huge servers or offensive baseliners, and three of them are under 25. 

In that sense, it doesn’t seem to me that the grass at Wimbledon, and the types of matches it produces, has changed all that much over the decades. There was no serve-and-volley today, but would anyone seriously compare Nadal-Kyrgios to clay- or even hard-court tennis? What’s changed are the men’s playing styles, and they continue to move in cycles even as we speak.  

Yet there was another, more obvious, cycle at work in this match, and another reason that Rafa wasn’t able to win the key points when he needed them, the way he did four years ago: He’s 28 now, and he was playing a 19-year-old. Nadal was asked if he was surprised to see someone so young doing so well here. Rafa, who won his first French Open at the time he turned 19, scoffed.

“With 19,” he said. “I was here already playing these kind of tournaments and competing well....19 years old is a perfect age to be on the tour and to play well. That’s what happened with great players in the past. Is nothing new.”

Nadal was reluctant to anoint Kyrgios the next great star. Rafa said, rightly, that he needs to see him on other surfaces, and that we’ve had our share of flashes in the pan over the years. But his comments about Kyrgios’s age reminded me of another champion’s comments after he had just lost to a younger, up-and-coming player. 

The older champion was Roger Federer, who was 22; the younger was Rafael Nadal, who was 17; the location was Miami; the year was 2004. When a reporter asked Federer what he thought of Rafa doing so well at such a young age, Roger bristled the same way Rafa bristled today. Federer said they should get out a tape of him beating Top 10 players when he was 17. 

Today a young Kyrgios made Rafa react the same way a young Rafa had once made Federer react. The kid might just make it, after all.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Wednesday’s Order of Play here.

Simona Halep vs. Sabine Lisicki

This is a tough one to call, and should be a good one. Halep leads their head to head 2-1, and she beat Lisicki on clay this year in Madrid. Halep is also the steadier and more versatile player, and thus perhaps the safer bet. But she’s never faced Lisicki at Wimbledon: Winner: Lisicki

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Angelique Kerber

They're 1-1 against each other. Kerber won at last year’s U.S. Open, but Bouchard won the more recent one, at the French Open this spring. Kerber had the day of her life on Tuesday, but Bouchard has been steadily growing into what should be her normal, high level of play. It’s another tough call, but I’ll take the player who has had the better season so far. Winner: Bouchard

Andy Murray vs. Grigor Dimitrov

This should be an entertaining one, with Dimitrov’s slashing all-court game paired against Murray’s grinding, side-to-side variety. Dimitrov won their last match, a three-set epic, on hard courts in Mexico earlier in 2014. I don’t think he’s quite ready, this year, to do the same thing on Centre Court. Winner: Murray

Novak Djokovic vs. Marin Cilic

Djokovic is 9-0 against Cilic, though the Croat has some minor reasons to be cheerful. In their last two matches, he took sets from Novak, something he hadn’t done since 2008, and he’s playing perhaps the best tennis of his career right now. I also saw Cilic play some astounding tennis against Djokovic at Indian Wells—for a set. When he came back to earth, he wasn’t good enough. Winner: Djokovic

Milos Raonic vs. Nick Kyrgios

How does a 19-year-old celebrate the biggest win of his career? Probably not by going back out to face Milos Raonic on grass the next day. This has all the makings of an old-fashioned rock fight. Kyrgios may have more overall game, but Raonic has more experience for today, and he has looked lethally efficient so far here. Winner: Raonic

Stan Wawrinka vs. Roger Federer

They just watched their soccer team lose, so neither is going to want to compound that with a quarterfinal loss to the other. Wawrinka won their last match, in Monte Carlo, and we've seen what he can do when he gets on a roll at a major. Also, Federer has struggled right after Nadal loses in a Slam in the past—see the 2009 French Open, and Wimbledon in 2012 and 2013. He also went on to win two of those tournaments. Winner: Federer

For complete Wimbledon coverage, including updated draws and reports from Steve Tignor, head to our tournament page.

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