The Overnight: How Kyrgios finally broke the ice on Oz's biggest stage

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NIck Kyrgios won on Rod Laver Arena for the first time on Friday night, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four tight sets. (AP)

For years, we’ve heard that Nick Kyrgios is a “player who loves the big stage.” Certainly his haircut, his earrings, and his penchant for uncensored self-expression would have led you to believe that this is a guy who relishes being the ringmaster at the circus. The fact that, as a 19-year-old in 2014, he beat Rafael Nadal in his Centre Court debut at Wimbledon would seem to close the case in his favor.

But in the four years since, the evidence for Kyrgios’ love of the spotlight has grown a little thin. Rather than let himself be lifted by the energy of the crowd or inspired by the pressure of the moment, he has been distracted and agitated by them. At Wimbledon, he grew progressively more disconsolate against Andy Murray on Centre Court. At the US Open, he was incensed by a group of late-arriving fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium. At the Australian Open, he was bothered by noise from the stands. Kyrgios has yet to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event, or win a Masters 1000 tournament. Before this week he hadn’t won a match on the biggest stage in his home country, Rod Laver Arena.

Now, after his admirably composed and resilient 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday night, Kyrgios has. In one sense, this win fit into a well-established Kyrgios pattern. Over the course of his career, he hasn’t so much loved the spotlight as much as he has loved sharing it with a great player or someone he respects. He’s better known for his victories over Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer—as well as his three-tiebreaker loss to Federer in Miami, my match of 2017—than he is for any titles he has won.

While Tsonga isn’t among the Big Four, Kyrgios talked a lot before and after the match about how much he has always admired Jo. There would have been no shame in losing to Tsonga, a finalist here in 2008; that took some of the pressure off Kyrgios and helped him keep his emotions in check.

“He’s a tough opponent,” Kyrgios said of Tsonga. “He’s beaten pretty much all the top guys in the world.”

By the time this match was over, Aussie sports fans and the tennis world, both of which have had their reservations about Kyrgios, finally saw the player they had been waiting to see. Instead of ranting at his player box or finding reasons to be distracted by the hyped-up crowd, he mostly kept his head down and played. And instead of letting one mistake turn into three and pulling the ripcord when things began to go south, Kyrgios responded with positivity and aggression. When Tsonga got into a verbal altercation with a fan, Kyrgios said, “I didn’t even notice it. I was too focused on what I had to do.”

In the first-set tiebreaker, Kyrgios gave away a mini-break at 4-3 by sending an easy forehand long. The air temporarily went out of the building, but Kyrgios came right back with an ace for 5-4. In the third-set tiebreaker, Kyrgios saved a set point with a first serve and a forehand winner. And he came back from 2-5 down in the fourth-set tiebreaker with a series of controlled and thoughtful plays. He threw in a drop shot at just the right moment, fooled Tsonga with a kick first serve out wide that he hadn’t tried all night, and, instead of trying to hit a passing shot winner, he sent a low backhand skimming over the tape that Tsonga couldn’t handle.

“Five-two down, I thought I was looking down the barrel of a fifth set,” Kyrgios admitted. “At 5-5, I missed my first serve by a long shot. I was like, I got to make the second serve and compete for that point.”

Kyrgios couldn’t keep his head down completely, of course. But this time what he noticed in the audience—his favorite actor, Will Smith—did inspire him.

“It was surreal seeing him tonight,” Kyrgios said. “You know, I was talking to him in the third set. I kept looking at him. I was like ‘I got to break the ice, I got to say something.’”

Now that Kyrgios has broken the ice on the big stage in Melbourne, he’ll face the next test that any wannabe Grand Slam champion must pass—putting together back to back wins over tough opponents. Next up is No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov.

Tennis Channel on No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza's loss to Su-Wei Hseih:

Finessing the Issue

Once upon a time, it was believed that pro tennis players would grow bigger and bigger, and hit harder and harder, until all finesse, variety, and nuance were battered out of the game. And it’s true: the sport isn’t getting any slower, smaller, or less athletic.

But this year’s Australian Open women’s event has reminded us that 21st-century tennis has not, dire warnings to the contrary, been reduced to a one-dimensional rock fight. In fact, during the first week in Melbourne we’ve been treated to something of a finesse renaissance.

On Thursday, Su-Wei Hsieh defused one of the game’s premier sluggers, Garbiñe Muguruza, with a surreal mix of drop volleys, surprising angles, sudden changes of pace, and unusual spins that left the Spaniard wondering what could possibly be coming next. Agnieszka Radwanska, a past master of diabolical court craft, has reversed her steep 2017 decline with two three-set wins. Caroline Garcia, an all-court talent of the French-flair variety, has survived two early-round challenges. Carla Suarez Navarro has used her famously sweeping one-handed backhand to reach the fourth round. Magdalena Rybarikova, semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, has joined her there, and shown that her throwback, slice-based style works on hard courts, too.

On Friday night, another player of quiet style, Petra Martic, also survived the triple-digit heat and made her low-key way into the round of 16. Martic is a 26-year-old from Croatia who was sidelined with a back injury in 2016. Her comeback, which once seemed unlikely, began with a trip to the fourth round at the French Open.

On Friday, she found herself in Rod Laver Arena, where she and Luksika Kumkhum treated the fans who were brave enough to sit in the heat to one of the tournament’s best contests. Martic also treated them, if they hadn’t seen her before, to her trademark swooping ground strokes. On her forehand side, she hooks her racquet upward from very low to very high; on her backhand slice, she does the same thing in reverse, bringing the frame down dramatically from head to foot in a fancy, elongated chopping motion. Neither of Martic’s ground strokes would be called textbook or ultra-efficient. But that little bit extra is where tennis style come from.

“I think any player has a chance on a given day against the best players,” a calmly confident-sounding Martic said of the wide-open women’s draw. “I think it’s great to see, because it’s very exciting, and you know, you can’t say who’s going to win the tournament.”

Could it be Petra Martic, or Ash Barty, or Maria Sharapova, or Angelique Kerber, or Caroline Wozniacki, or Madison Keys? Looking at that list, and at the rest of the players still in the draw, what stands out isn’t so much how open the tournament is, but how many different styles of play are still in the mix. You have the raw power of Keys, Sharapova and Naomi Osaka; the old-fashioned, Aussie-style forward attack of Barty; the kitchen-sink craft of Radwanska and Su-Wei Hsieh; the grind and grit of Kerber and Wozniacki; the understated elegance of Rybarikova and Martic.

We’ll see what the future brings, but for this moment, the women’s game is multi-dimensional, and the better for it.

Read Joel Drucker and Nina Pantic on as they report from the Australian Open, and watch them each day on The Daily Mix:


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