MELBOURNE—The man had just hit a glorious winner. Turning to a friend, he asked, “Weren’t we put on earth to experience this state of bliss?” The reply: “No, we were put on earth to suffer.”
Ecstasy and agony, twined and twisted, never more so than when Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal stare across the net from one another in a rivalry that is enchanting and edgy. This evening, Rod Laver Arena was the site of a tennis rainbow, the round of 16 match between these two showcasing an electric spectrum of shots, strategies and so many of the momentum shifts that can make tennis painful and dazzling. There you have it, bliss and suffering, tennis’ enduring love match.
In three hours and 38 minutes, Nadal won, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4). As usual, there was no let up in Nadal’s intensity. But there was a drop in his play, most notably when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. Just twice in that game did Nadal get a first serve in. Those were the only points he won. Breaking back with a boxing-like flurry of forehands, as he had frequently throughout this match, Kyrgios proved himself as both artist and warrior. This is the good Nick.
Serving at 5-all in the fourth, the Aussie rallied from 15-40 down, aided by a service winner on the first break point and a clever mix of a drop shot and snappy backhand down-the-line on the second.
The tiebreaker would prove the pivot between closure for Nadal and yet one more chance for Kyrgios. Early on, the two traded mini-breaks and served back-to-back aces. Then, serving at 3-4, Kyrgios’ creativity got the best of him. Lining up a forehand from just past the service line, having frequently pounded it hard into the corners, Kyrgios opted instead to try a drop shot. It fluttered into the net.
Two points later, serving at 5-4 in the tiebreaker, Nadal tightened the noose hard. An excellent body serve into Kyrgios’ forehand brought him to match point. There came a 12-ball rally. Nadal scampered and pounded. So did Kyrgios, just touching the line with a crisp down-the-line backhand. But as the two engaged in a Nadal backhand to Kyrgios forehand exchange, Kyrgios at last succumbed, netting a forehand.
“When he wants to play tennis, when he's focused on what he's doing, I think he's a very important player for our sport because he has a big talent,” said Nadal.
Since Saturday night, Melbourne Park buzzed with anticipation for this match. Today, though, the news of Kobe Bryant’s death changed everything.
“Basketball is practically my life," said Kyrgios after. "I watch it every day. I've been following it for as long as I can remember. When I woke up to the news, it was pretty emotional. It was pretty heavy, like, all day.”
Kyrgios entered the court and warmed up with Nadal wearing a Los Angeles Lakers tank top bearing Bryant’s number 8. This too was the good Nick, a man with wisdom and perspective.
“It motivated me,” he said of Bryant’s death. “If you look at the things he stood for, what he wanted to be remembered by, I felt like, if anything, it helped me tonight. When I was down a break in the fourth, I was definitely thinking about it. I fought back.”
Press Conference: Nick Kyrgios
Think of this rivalry as one between warden and prisoner. Nadal is tennis’ ultimate jail-keeper. His affinity for suffering is a badge, a competitor’s code of honor he in turn applies to his opponents. Kyrgios earned his first infraction when he served at 1-2, 40-15 and misfired on two consecutive drop shots. Nadal in time took advantage of those executional lapses to break serve and soon enough win the first set in 36 minutes. And when Nadal held a 15-40 lead in Kygrios’ opening service game of the second set, he seemed likely to permanently place Kyrgios under lock and key, the swirling wind and slow court only further oppressing the Australian.
But Kyrgios is a rebel. He will not submit. A 132 M.P.H. ace down the T was a bold objection. At 30-40, a loud uprising. Tracking down a Nadal lob, Kyrgios replied with a tweener, pushed the reset button on the rally and closed it out with a fiery forehand. At 1-2, Nadal got tight, dropping his serve at 30. Soon enough, Kyrgios ran out the second set.
The third set revealed that, for all their differences, these two share a common tennis rarity: a capacity not just for motion, not just for ball-striking, but for the artistic, the creative and, naturally, the incredible. One glory of watching these two play is to see the many parts of the court they occupy. Swift feet and active eyes let each see corners and angles most never even know exist.
With Kygrios serving at 5-6, 15-all, he served-and-volleyed and carved a deft, angled backhand volley crosscourt. Somehow, Nadal was the one who ended up at the net, in the course of the point lunging for three backhand volleys before Kyrgios lined a backhand volley of his own into the net.
“That's just the champion he is, the player he is,” said Kyrgios. “He makes you play the extra ball.”
The third set tiebreaker came down to that classic tennis struggle of serves and nerves. Kyrgios served at 5-all and on his second serve, torched it down the T at 135 M.P.H. But it was long. Then Nadal double-faulted. At 6-all, though, the warden was on his bullhorn. Nadal laced a forehand down the line. Sensing a slight opening—by sight or smell is a mystery—Nadal opportunistically charged forward to end the point with a backhand volley winner. On the second point, Kyrgios closed out a five-ball rally with a forehand into the net.
Then there had come that seesaw fourth set, Nadal in control for nine games, but Kyrgios pushing him to the edge.
“Always the same thing: when we have been playing rallies, I feel more or less on control of the point, no?" said Nadal. "I think I played well from the baseline, changing directions, changing rhythms, playing aggressive with my forehand and backhand. The problem is when he's serving, you don't have many chances. He has a big serve, so you are under pressure the whole match.”
Flighty as Kyrgios can be emotionally, this effort again showed his tactical imagination, an ability to mix up spins, paces and directions in a highly unsettling way. Nadal disrupts with predictability. Kyrgios disrupts with the uncertain. One can only hope he brings such skill every time he plays.
Nadal’s next opponent is Dominic Thiem, a man who, like Nadal, is able to compete as both grinder and shot-maker.
“He was playing a very high level [of] tennis,” said Nadal. “We know each other well. He's a player that I like him a lot, the way that he work, the way that he plays, and the way that he tries his best always.”
Thiem today took less than two hours to dispatch Gael Monfils, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Nadal leads this rivalry 9-4, including wins in the last two Roland Garros finals. But in their only other Slam meeting, a 2018 quarterfinal at the US Open, Nadal won by the incredible score of 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5).
Having suffered that evening for nearly five hours, only past 2:00 A.M. had Nadal at last found bliss. Rest assured, this is why he likes tennis.