MELBOURNE – At those frequent moments when Nick Kyrgios feels distraught, one wonders if he shuts his eyes, clicks his Nikes together and says, “There’s no place like Melbourne Arena, there’s no place like Melbourne Arena.”
In the world according to Nick, if you want white wine and canapés, go take your friggin’ assigned seat with the rich and pretty inside the delightful circle known as Rod Laver Arena.
But if you want to be with the people, head to Melbourne Arena, that austere hulk where entry only requires a grounds pass—and those who occupy every single one of those 10,500 chairs are wildly in Kyrgios’ corner. As Jimmy Connors was to Louis Armstrong Stadium, Kyrgios is to Melbourne Arena, the venue at once his utopian Woodstock and dystopian Altamont. We’re not kidding. According to a story in The Daily Telegraph, the start of Kyrgios’ match inside Melbourne Arena this evening was delayed when a woman was allegedly punched by a man.
Kyrgios tonight took four hours and 26 minute to beat 16th-seeded Karen Khachanov 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (8). Khachanov fought off match points in the third and fourth set tiebreakers, then served in the decider at 8-7. Closing out a 14-ball rally, Kyrgios struck a laser of a backhand down-the-line winner to level it at 8-all and then snapped up the final two points. Said Kyrgios, “That was definitely one of the craziest matches I've ever been a part of. It was insane. . . I thought I was going to lose.”
Just as happened Thursday night on this court versus Gilles Simon, Kyrgios led the match two sets to love and 4-2. As versus Simon, Kyrgios often played delicate, rope-a-dope style tennis, calmly hanging in rallies with Khachanov until he had the chance to either crack a big forehand or employ his pet play, the drop shot.
Then, as if scripted, Kyrgios unraveled. Serving at 4-3, he was broken at 15, on the last point of that game badly missing a drop shot from behind his baseline. Though in the tiebreaker, Kyrgios reached match point with Khachanov serving at 5-6, the Russian—a far better server than Simon—struck an excellent 117 mph delivery down the center to force a forehand return error. A smash off the throat of Khachanov’s racquet and a wide Kyrgios forehand took it into a fourth. At 6-all in the fourth, Kyrgios again held a match point, but his return was tentative and short, giving Khachanov the chance to elicit a missed backhand passing shot. An ace and a misfired Kyrgios forehand leveled the match.
The only previous time these two had played one another came in Cincinnati last summer. This was the occasion when Kyrgios went thermonuclear with chair umpire Fergus Murphy as the result of a time violation that occurred with Kyrgios leading 7-6, 5-5, 30-love. Broken racquets and highly vocal profanity triggered a six-figure fine and the threat of future suspension. Naturally, Kyrgios was beaten, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-2. Much as Kyrgios can command a crowd like Connors, his competitive makeup, wed to off-the-charts talent, makes Kyrgios more simpatico with Connors’ frequent doubles partner and fellow rogue, Ilie Nastase. Like Nastase, Kyrgios often loses the plot to the point of losing the match.
But what happened in Cincinnati was a distant backdrop to the emotion that pervaded this match—besides, unlike other Kyrgios squabbles, in Cincinnati, Khachanov was merely a bystander. In the first set, up 4-2, Kyrgios felt a twinge in his left buttock and requested a visit from the trainer. In the third, as he began to melt, he muttered “déjà vu.” In the fourth, at 4-all, 15-love, Kyrgios fell to the ground after playing a brilliant half-volley. As Kyrgios tumbled, he’d bloodied his hand and subsequently applied a towel to it. Requesting that the ball boy not handle his blood-stained towel, Kyrgios took longer than usual to commence his service motion, leading chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein to issue a time violation. A justifiably miffed Kyrgios loudly berated Lichtenstein for not understanding why he’d been delayed.
While Kyrgios held a nation in his hands, Khachanov swung into a void. Be it a spectacular backhand topspin lob, a crisp groundstroke, or sharp serve, the Russian’s 75 winners were greeted with funeral-like silence. Fair and tennis-savvy as Australian crowds can be, something about Kyrgios and Melbourne Arena makes even the locals excessively partisan.
“I could feel everyone in the crowd, just everyone trying to will me over the line,” said Kyrgios. “It's a good feeling. But, I mean, still a lot of devastating things happening, even though it's Australia Day.” Though there are many years to determine if Kyrgios will emerge as a first-rate mate instead of a top-tier twerp, it was he, after all, who compelled the tennis world to come to the aid of a nation devastated by weeks of fires.
Now, though, comes a change of venue. On Monday, likely at night, Kyrgios’ round of 16 match with Rafael Nadal will be played inside Rod Laver Arena. These two have had a history that owes more to such contentious rivalries as Connors versus John McEnroe or McEnroe versus Lendl, a far cry from the collegiality that governs much of contemporary tennis. Also in the mix is that Kyrgios has won three of their seven matches. “I'm super excited honestly,” said Kyrgios. “Playing one of the greatest tennis players on center court at your own Slam, it's pretty damn cool.”
Tonight versus Khachanov, Kyrgios indeed had to click his heels to find his way home. Monday, versus Nadal on another court, he’ll likely need even better footwork.