The most anticipated match in Madrid on Tuesday pitted Juan Martin del Potro against Dominic Thiem. On one side you had an all-time fan favorite in Del Potro, and on the other you had the ATP’s fastest-rising star in Thiem. What more could anyone ask out of a first-round encounter? Together they produced an entertaining two-setter that ended with a feel-good victory for Del Potro, who is struggling to return to form after two years away. Yet despite all of that, the stands were half full.
Contrast that with Wednesday’s most anticipated match, between Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios. Even before the first ball was struck, every seat in Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario Stadium was taken, and there was a line of hundreds waiting in vain to get inside. The tournament’s organizers had made the mistake of putting Wawrinka-Kyrgios in the third-largest arena at the Caja Magica; either they had underestimated the appeal of this grudge match, or they have all been sleeping under a rock since last summer. Judging by the turnout, Wawrinka and Kyrgios might want to consider taking their show on the road and staging an old-fashioned two-man barnstorming tour.
Forget fan favorites, rising stars, heartwarming comebacks and even hometown heroes. Wawrinka-Kyrgios had what all sports fans, even if they tell you otherwise, want to see: beef. This was the second time the Aussie and the Swiss had faced off since their notorious encounter in Montreal last August, when—just in case you, too, have been sleeping under a rock—Kyrgios informed Wawrinka, in front of the world, that his girlfriend had slept with another player.
The first rematch came in Doha in February, and it ended tamely, with a chastened Kyrgios limping off the court and retiring in the second set. He and Wawrinka also played on the same team, the Singapore Slammers, during an IPTL exhibition tour of Asia last December. When they joined up, Kyrgios was quick to claim that the hatchet had been buried.
“It’s almost like nothing happened,” the Aussie said.
But Wawrinka, in an interview earlier this year with Reem Abulleil of Sport 360, said not so fast. According to Stan, trading high-fives with Kyrgios was nothing more than a professional obligation.
“You’re doing your job and that’s it,” Wawrinka said. “Nick is a tennis player. I’m a tennis player. We’re going to be around for a while, every tournament or whatever. The thing is, I don’t forget [what he did], for sure.”
The tennis fans of Madrid didn’t forget either. When they wedged themselves into Sanchez-Vicario Stadium on Wednesday, did they hope for more fireworks between the two? The sideline cameramen certainly did. Each time either player uttered a word as they crossed paths on a changeover, the cameras swooped in, hoping for that Holy Grail of modern sports: the viral moment.