Out: Australian Open crowds, until at least Thursday. Out, too: Nick Kyrgios, in the third round, but a memorable send-off for both.
The John Cain Arena scoreboard told the tale of a two-sets-to-love lead that ended in the 47th-ranked Kyrgios eliminated 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 by world No.3 and reigning US Open champion Dominic Thiem.
It was a match that, well, pivoted when Thiem saved two break points in the first game of the third.
For the fans facing at least five days of Stage Four COVID lockdown restrictions, and also for Kyrgios, it was a contest that showed both what he can do, oh so spectacularly, and what he could not. Not quite.
“I’m still proud of myself,’’ Kyrgios said. “You know, I took 13 months away from the game, and to produce that level and go toe-to-toe with one of the best players in the world, I’m pretty proud. I left it all out there.
“I actually physically felt pretty good. I’m sore now.
“He’s a hell of a player. He’s so disciplined. He’s so composed. His level doesn’t drop. It is what it is. Couple points in it. I’m not disappointed at all.
“I’m super proud of everything I’ve done the last couple of months to get ready for it.
“And, you know, good luck to him. I hope he does well, because he’s a hell of a player.’’
This was no act of self-sabotage. Not this time. In just his second tournament in a year, Kyrgios’ conqueror was one of the world’s best players, who raised his level when almost resigned to defeat, so phenomenal were the first two sets from Kyrgios, and so precarious Thiem’s position early in the third.
But he has adhered to an “impossible’s nothing” philosophy since last year’s US Open, where he dropped the first two sets in the final against Alexander Zverev but still managed to raise the trophy.
“Nick on his favourite court with an amazing crowd, there are easier things to do,’’ Thiem said afterwards, as his audience prepared to scramble home in the hour or so remaining before the 11.59pm lockdown deadline.
“So that’s for sure one of the tougher challenges we have in our sport, as you never know what’s coming, and he’s a huge player when he’s on fire like today.’’
Playing in front of a crowd is always preferable, he said, regardless of the circumstances.
“Obviously they are for the local hero, there is nothing wrong with that, so I had to accept it and I still prefer that way more than to play in front of an empty stadium.
“Unfortunately next match is gonna be empty, so I think everybody’s very sad about it, and tonight was epic and a good last match before the lockdown, it’s really sad to say.’’
So, then there were two. Australians in singles contention, that is. The two highest-ranked.
Ash Barty has played her past two matches with a heavily strapped left thigh, and as keen as she has been to play down the extent of the injury while talking about the disproportionate size of the tape job, the whacking she gave the offending limb in the frustrated latter stages of her second set against Daria Gavrilova was a little more revealing.
Her 6-0, 6-0 opening round was the first double-bagel by an Australian since this event moved to Melbourne Park, but it was apparently during her warm-up that the problem occurred.
Barty and her American partner, Jennifer Brady, withdrew from their scheduled doubles match on Friday against second seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka. Even if only as a precaution, clearly all is not entirely well.
Along with her treatment, Barty would have worked through coach Craig Tyzzer’s scouting report on Alexandrova, 26, the world No.32 who conceded a total of just nine games in her defeats of grand slam champions Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek in last week’s Gippsland Trophy before succumbing to eventual champion Kaia Kanepi.
The 175-centimetre Russian has a powerful game that Barty will attempt to disrupt with her greater variety and superb tactical nous. Alexandrova, though, will have the benefit of the pro-Barty crowd being removed from the equation as she attempts to log her best result in a major at her 17th attempt.
For Barty, the world No.1, it is the challenge of now having someone that ‘I can go out there and test myself against’. She’s obviously playing some very good tennis, and had a great week last week as well. Certainly, she has her foot firmly set in the season.
Alex De Minaur, a US Open quarter-finalist in 2020, has never gone deeper than the third round at Melbourne Park, and failed to even get to the start line 13 months ago due to an abdominal injury. But he started the season in Antalya, Turkey, with his fourth career title and has rebounded from two ATP Cup singles losses to eliminate Tennys Sandgren and Pablo Cuevas without the loss of a set.
“It wasn’t easy last year, but I think I have used what I felt, you know, during all those stages last year to kind of fuel the hunger that I’ve got in the belly for this year,’’ de Minaur said.
“In hindsight, 2020 wasn’t a horrible year. Actually I had my best result in a slam. I finished the year 23. There is a lot of positives to find. But for what I had encountered or what I was ready for, it felt a bit disappointing. Look, I’m trying to make 2021 everything 2020 wasn’t.
“I’m enjoying my time on court, and hopefully I can prolong it and keep playing some great tennis, because this is where I want to be.’’
That means following Barty-Alexandrova on the evening schedule on Margaret Court Arena, where combustible Italian and 16th seed Fabio Fognini awaits. Indeed, two more contrasting characters it would be hard to imagine.
Fognini, the 50-slam veteran with a long disciplinary rap sheet, had enough energy left after his almost-four-hour marathon against countryman Salvatore Caruso for an on-court altercation that prompted a tournament official to intervene.
De Minaur is more likely to be found dancing on TikTok with his little sister than involved in an on-court punch-up, describing his temperament as “a little more calm and chill’’.
If the 21-year-old is guilty of anything, it’s that he can judge his own performances too harshly – although the flip side is that the Spain-based road runner believes it also drives his constant quest for improvement.
Self-criticism, however, has not typically been Fognini’s problem. Many would say the opposite is true. Still, at 33 and in his 50th major main draw, the flamboyant shotmaker is both close to the peak of his powers, and outrageously unpredictable in every respect.
“It’s a quality opponent. I mean, Fabio has been up there for a very long time. He’s back to playing his best tennis,’’ said de Minaur, pledging to enjoy every second of being back in the third round, in front of his home crowd. Or, well, not.