The match had reached the middle of the fourth set. Kyrgios had won the first two in tiebreakers; Istomin had won the third, also in a tiebreaker—over the course of two hours, neither player had broken the other’s serve. Kyrgios had begun the match looking more focused and positive than normal. He hit the ball with conviction. He made his drop shots, rained down 130-m.p.h. second-serve aces, and kept Istomin off balance with his typically bizarre and seemingly self-defeating shot selection. He even celebrated winning points with fist-pumps and determined shakes of his racquet.
Kyrgios had come to Wimbledon touting his chances and talking about how much happier and better-prepared he was than in years past.
“I feel good. I’m in a good place right now on the grass,” he said at Queen’s Club last week, expressing satisfaction with his semifinal runs there and in Stuttgart. Had the New Nick that the tennis world has been waiting for finally arrived?
WATCH—Nick Kyrgios, after his first-round win:
If so, he didn’t hang around for long. By the middle of the second set, Kyrgios’s concentration level had begun to flag, and his frustration level had begun to rise. He jawed with umpire Carlos Ramos; he belted a return over the fence; he put up little resistance on Istomin’s service games; he struggled to get a few of his drop shots to reach the net, let alone across it.
While Istomin couldn’t take advantage of Kyrgios’ dip in the second set, he did in the third. By the fourth, momentum had begun to shift to the Russian’s side of the net. Kyrgios’ “good place” had gone away, and the specter of an early exit by one of the game’s most high-profile players began to loom. Istomin, as we knew from watching him beat Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open last year, had what it took, weapon-wise, to pull off a marathon upset.
But it was a shot that Istomin chose not to hit that ended up turning the match against him. In the middle of the fourth set, Kyrgios served a ball long and Istomin let it go past him. Instead of hitting his racquet, it ended up hitting a surprised ball girl on the arm. Shaken, she was helped off the court by Istomin and Kyrgios. The Aussie was apologetic, but it ended up being the shock that he needed. From there, Kyrgios went back to business, recorded the first break of the match for 5-3, and served it out with ease. He ended the day the same way he began it—upbeat and aggressive, and back in his good place.
What does all of this say about Kyrgios’s chances durnig this fortnight? On the one hand, his attitude off the court sounds as hopeful as it ever has. Injuries to his hip and elbow have sidelined him recently, and, like many players, he says the time away, and the time traveling on tour with his girlfriend, Ajla Tomljanovic, has given him a new appreciation for the game, and for his life in it. He also says that, in contrast to past years, when he was “underdone” when it came to warm-up matches, he’s pleased with amount of grass-court tennis he’s played. All of which has led him to believe he’s a contender for the title this year.
“For sure, if I put my mind to it and really focus, take it one match at a time, Kyrgios told Reem Abulleil of Sport360 before the tournament. “I feel like I’m physically a lot better than a couple years ago. I’m much stronger.
“I’m healthy, I’m winning, and it’s a good feeling, so I’m not going to take that for granted.”
Yet there were moments against Istomin when Kyrgios looked to be teetering mentally. Unable to break at 4-3 in the second set, he grew irritated. Rather than put that out of his mind and move forward, he went down 15-40 on his serve in the next game. How did he extricate himself from this jam? By drilling two huge second-serve service winners. All Istomin could do was look up at the sky in disbelief.
“That’s Kyrgios for you,” Istomin might have been saying, though not quite as politely. And that is Kyrgios; he can hit shots no one else can, at moments no one else would think of trying them.
But is relying on 130-plus-.m.p.h. second serves a recipe for seven straight wins at Wimbledon? More specifically, is it a recipe for beating Kei Nishikori, if they meet in the third round? Nishikori is 3-0 against Kyrgios. While grass will favor the Australian, he probably won’t get the breaks and mistakes he got from Istomin today.
Still, if Nick Kyrgios can stay in a good place, Wimbedon will be a more interesting place this fortnight.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.