Rise and Fall

by: Steve Tignor February 22, 2016

Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios had very different weeks. (AP)

How will the tennis champions of tomorrow celebrate their victories? If they’re anything like Nick Kyrgios, their first act will be to slam an Internet troll.

On Sunday, not long after Kyrgios surprised himself and the rest of the sports world by winning his first ATP title, in Marseille, the 20-year-old Aussie was confronted with a new opponent: A self-proclaimed “lover of tennis” on Facebook, who insisted that Kyrgios’ win was a “fluke,” the tournament was “minor," and that he would never win another.

Kyrgios wasted no time in rolling over his detractor the same way he rolled over the field at the Open 13.

“Yep,” Kyrgios wrote, “Gasquet, Berdych, & Cilic in straight sets back to back is a fluke and ‘minor.’ See ya hater.”

There really wasn’t any comeback to that. 

Kyrgios’ performance in Marseille was as impressive as his self-assessment indicates. Maybe more so: He also beat Vasek Pospisil, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist last year, in straights.  In fact, Kyrgios didn’t lose a set (10-0) or drop serve (47-0) all week. Judging from those stats, you might think he did it all, servebot-style, with that one shot alone. But only Marin Cilic was able to push him to a tiebreaker. Obviously, Kyrgios was doing something right with his returns and ground strokes, as well.

Why Marseille? Why now? In the past, Kyrgios has been known as a guy who brings it at the majors but struggles to maintain his concentration at—as his Facebook friend would call them—the minors. That trend began to reverse itself in 2015, though, when he reached his first final (on clay in Estoril) and played well through the fall, while going just 4-3 at the last three Slams. 

After watching Kyrgios lose night matches at the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2016 Australian Open, I began to wonder if he really did “love the big stage,” as we like to say. Both times—against Andy Murray in New York and Tomas Berdych in Melbourne—Kyrgios, rather than feeding off the evening-session fans, let them distract him. He looked frazzled, rather than inspired, by the moment.

By contrast, Kyrgios came to this 250-level event with no expectations at all. He had pulled out of the previous tournament, in Rotterdam, with an elbow injury.

“I didn’t really expect to win this title this week after having a couple weeks off,” Kyrgios said in Marseille. “But from the first round I started playing really well and just gained confidence as I kept winning matches.”

Perhaps it was the language barrier, or the somewhat antiseptic indoor atmosphere in Marseille, but Kyrgios didn’t chatter or engage the crowd as much as he usually does. No small distraction was allowed to turn into a big one. At times, I’ve thought Kyrgios’ serve, which is one of the most effective shots on tour, could make the game too easy for him; knowing he had that bailout weapon made him profligate with his other shots. Last week, though, his serve did what it should do: It gave him room to be aggressive in his return games. Kyrgios' backhand can still look stiff, and he still pulls the trigger as soon as possible with his forehand, but his improved return of serve was a key to his run.

Maybe Kyrgios wasn’t a full-blown “star,” the way we thought. Maybe he was a young player, like all young players these days, who needed to learn the tour ropes and slowly work his way up the ladder. On Sunday he reached the first rung.

*****

There’s only so much room on that ladder, of course, and for every player who scales it, another must make the long climb downward. Even as the 20-year-old Kyrgios was rising, it felt as if Rafael Nadal, soon to be 30, spent the last two weeks continuing a gradual but painful descent on the clay courts of South America.

“Descent,” of course, is a relative term when it comes to Rafa on dirt. He reached the semis in both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, and lost by razor-thin margins both times. For the most part, aside from his serve, I thought he played pretty well. Still, this is Nadal we’re talking about. No player has ever come as close to invincibility on a single surface. Making the semis at a clay-court event is never going to be a satisfying result for him.

“I didn’t win a title,” Nadal said, “so it wasn’t a positive two tournaments ... I lost an opportunity. I have to accept it and keep trying to change the dynamic.”

“Dynamic” is the right word. Both of Nadal’s defeats followed what has become a characteristic late-career pattern for him. He lost to Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires after holding a match point, and to Pablo Cuevas in Rio after fighting back from a break down and forcing a tiebreaker in the second set.

Play solid tennis, gain confidence, and have the match in his grasp—only to watch as the point he needs the most slips through his fingers. This has been Rafa’s exasperating fate of late, and it was true in Argentina and Brazil.

The match with Thiem looked, briefly, as if it could be a momentum builder for Nadal. He came from a set down, against a quality opponent, to reach match point in the third. But Thiem saved it by hauling off and landing a forehand winner smack on the sideline. Rafa could only press his hand against his face in disbelief. 

The match with Cuevas also looked, briefly, as if it could be a heartening comeback win. From 1-4 down in the second set, Nadal forced a tiebreaker. There he also went down 1-4, before bringing the score back to 3-4. On the next point, Rafa sent up a terrific defensive lob that left Cuevas out of position. Nadal could have done whatever he wanted with a forehand; he chose a drop shot, but hesitated and left it a little too high and deep. Cuevas, granted new life, grabbed the point and ran out the set.  

Once upon a time, Nadal didn't lose these types of rallies when he needed them. On match point, the opponent’s desperation forehand would sail long. When Rafa had the other player out of position, he would put the ball away and stride back to the baseline with his fist in the air.

In the past, Nadal's opponents knew that hanging in against him wasn’t going to do any good. Now they know that if they hang around long enough, they have a chance. That’s the “dynamic” that Rafa rightly says has to be flipped back in his favor. It will be more difficult than simply fixing a serve or a forehand.

With Kyrgios and Thiem winning events, Alexander Zverev and Taylor Fritz making their marks, and Nadal proving to be mortal on clay, there was talk of generational change on the men’s side over the last two weekends. The signs are there, but nothing is official until it happens at a Grand Slam. The majors, and to a lesser extent the Masters 1000s, are like elections. They show us the trends that have staying power, and those, as Kyrgios' "hater" would say, that are flukes. They show us whether "the polls"—i.e., our week-to-week speculations—were correct. So far, any ATP revolution remains a tiny speck on a distant horizon. But Kyrgios’ win and Nadal’s losses demonstrate that, every now and then, even in tennis, the world turns.

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