How Rafael Nadal beat Nick Kyrgios in the tensest match of the year

How Rafael Nadal beat Nick Kyrgios in the tensest match of the year

The big-stage Spaniard changed the dynamic on Centre Court in a second-rounder that was treated like a final.

“Is a second-round match. Is not semifinals or finals. Is just a second-round match. That’s all.”

Technically, the first three sentences of the above statement by Rafael Nadal are true. His 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) win over Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon on Thursday was not a semifinal or a final. It was, indeed, a second-round match.

But the third sentence, “That’s all”? Nadal knows this was a little more—OK, a lot more—than that. Rafa-Kyrgios was among the most anticipated, and by far the grudgiest, match of 2019. Over the course of three hours on court, and another half an hour in the press room afterward, it lived up to its billing, both in drama and quality. We came for a fight, but somewhere along the way a top-notch tennis match broke out instead.

This moment had been brewing since the last time they met on Centre Court, five years go, when a 19-year-old Kyrgios swaggered away with a four-set win and a new reputation as a giant killer. But it wasn’t until their match earlier this year in Acapulco that the bad blood between them reached the boiling point. Kyrgios beat Nadal, and threw in an underhand serve along the way; Nadal called Kyrgios disrespectful, his uncle Toni said he was bad for tennis, and Kyrgios said that he and Rafa wouldn’t be having a drink together anytime soon. In tennis circles, these were brawling words.

At certain times over the first two sets, it looked like we might get one. A revved-up Rafa jumped on a lethargic Kyrgios early and won the first set. Kyrgios’ first response was to complain, at length, about Nadal’s slow play. His second was to rev up his own game, break Rafa twice in the second set, and level at one-set all. Virtually every shot by both men was accompanied by a heavy grunt, and every winning point followed by a pointed, aggressive celebration.

Kyrgios bounced like a boxer after putting away volleys, won two points with underhand serves, and drilled two forehand passes directly at Nadal; after the second one, Rafa shot him an angry look as he stalked back to the baseline. When Nadal held serve a minute or so later, he first-pumped all the way to the sideline. It wasn’t hard to figure out who those fist-pumps were aimed at. This was tennis at its most personal, in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time on the men’s tour.

And then, at some point in the third set, as the Spaniard and the Aussie began to trade quick holds, they settled down and the match settled into something close to normality—the tension was still there, but it no longer seemed to be on the verge of boiling over. I picked Kyrgios to win this one; judging by their match in Acapulco, which the Aussie had won in two tiebreakers, I felt like he had lodged himself in Rafa’s head, and that it would take lot for Nadal to get him out. After Kyrgios won the second set on Thursday, I felt the same way. Nadal was missing shots he doesn’t miss against other opponents; worse, in his anxiousness to put the ball away, he kept hitting it right back to Kyrgios.

But Nadal did two things that changed the dynamic between them. First, he found a serving rhythm. While Kyrgios hit 29 aces, Nadal won a higher percentage of his first-serve points, 82 to 76. Then, and more crucially, Nadal played the tiebreakers with what he called “the right determination.” Nadal was 0-5 against Kyrgios in breakers coming in, but today he never trailed in either of them. Instead, it was Kyrgios who couldn’t find the shot he needed when he needed it most. At 3-5 in the third-set tiebreaker, Kyrgios just missed an inside-out forehand that would have been a winner. At 3-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, he had a look at forehand return on a second serve, and sent it long. By contrast, when Nadal had chances to put away forehands in the tiebreakers, he didn’t miss.

“Of course I’m happy for the victory. Been a tough match obviously against a very tough opponent,” Nadal said. “Very happy the way that I hold the pressure. Very happy the way I played the tiebreaks with the right determination...Win two tiebreaks against him is difficult.”

Kyrgios could see from the start that this was a different Nadal.

“I knew his game plan, I got onto it pretty quickly,” Kyrgios said. “He directed most of his serves to my forehand. He hasn’t really done that in the past...But I thought just on big points, he played well.”

“I thought this was a high-level match.”

As for the pre-fight emotions, they hadn’t dissipated entirely. Kyrgios said again that Nadal plays too slowly, and that he wasn’t going to apologize for trying to “hit him square in the chest.” For his part, Nadal said he doesn’t like the way Kyrgios swings at the ball wildly, because “it’s dangerous for a line referee, for the crowd.” The tension between them may have eased a bit, but the hatchet—fortunately for the rest of us—hasn’t been buried quite yet.

Nick Kyrgios' post-match press conference:

Kyrgios’ mostly-excellent performance had people asking, not for the first time, about his Grand Slam-winning potential. But Nadal, again, had the right answer: We know Kyrgios can rise to the big occasions; it’s the little ones where he needs work.

“He likes to play these kind of matches,” Nadal said. “But to win important things, you don’t need to play against the top players, you need to play against other players...You need to win that matches [too].”

Rafael Nadal's post-match press conference:

In the end, it was Nadal who rose to this occasion, and who found something extra at a Slam that he didn’t have at a smaller tour event. When we talk about players who love the big stage, we don’t always talk about Nadal, but we should. He surely enjoys the applause as much as anyone other human being, but that’s not why he thrives in the spotlight. Nadal thrives in the spotlight because he respects the moment, the fans, the venue—and the spirit of competition that is conjured up in those sacred places too much not to give everything he’s got, every time he’s there. You only had to see how high this 33-year-old leapt after winning the third set to know what it still means to him.

So in a way, Rafa was telling the truth when he said this was just a second-round match. Because he treats every second-round match, especially those on Centre Court, as if it’s a final.