Watching Saturday night TV in the hotel room from which he can see the lights of the stadium bearing his name, Rod Laver thought he knew how the show was going to end.
Then a Nick Kyrgios plot twist surprised him – Pleasantly, this time.
Like many former Australian tennis greats – and some current international ones, including Kyrgios’ next opponent, Rafael Nadal – Laver has been troubled by the 24-year-old’s behaviour, and just last September called on the ATP to suspend the undisciplined self-saboteur from the game.
The only man in history to twice win the Grand Slam by sweeping all four majors in a calendar year, Laver gave Kyrgios little chance of victory against impressive Russian 16th seed Karen Khachanov as an epic duel headed into the fifth set.
“It was pretty amazing that he pulled it off,’’ Laver, 81, told The New Daily on Sunday.
“He worked hard, and he hit some great shots at important times.’’
To Laver’s expert eye, the most memorable was the backhand winner ripped down the line to finish a long rally at 8-8 in the match tiebreak.
With that short backswing, and nerveless intent, Kyrgios hit one of the best and most critical shots of the match.
“As tired as he was, that energy was still coming out,’’ Laver said.
<br /> Nick’s always had talent, but of course his mental attitude sometimes gets the better of him.
“The other night he took more than his allotted time to serve, and he tried to tell the umpire he had blood from his hand on the towel so he didn’t want to give it to the ball girl, and the referee didn’t want to know, but it didn’t change the situation.
“That sort of thing would have upset him, a year ago.’’
It upset him this time, too, and Kyrgios admitted post-match to “losing it mentally a little bit” at various stages of a remarkable match that was the longest of his career, and which he had led by two sets to love and had match points in both the third and fourth sets.
Yet he was able to find a way into an eighth career meeting with top-seeded Nadal, and the hotly anticipated encounter will have a compelling personal edge.
Laver suspects Kyrgios will be a little drained, mentally, and Nadal clearly fresher physically, given that the Spaniard is yet to drop a set.
Still, Kyrgios typically raises his level when one of the top dogs is across the net, and he is 2-1 on hardcourts (and 3-4 overall) against the winner of 19 majors, including the Australian Open in 2009.
Kyrgios has declared Nadal to be “super salty” after each defeat, and responded to the Spaniard’s accusation that he lacked respect for himself, the crowd and opponents by boasting that he could “smell blood when I play this dude”.
The sparring continued on Saturday with each asked if they liked the other.
Nadal: “I don’t know. I don’t know him personally, honestly, to have a clear opinion. (But) it’s clear, of course, that when he does stuff that in my opinion is not good, I don’t like.
“When he plays good tennis and he shows passion for this game, he is a positive player for our tour, and I want my tour bigger, not smaller.
“So the players who make the tour bigger are important for the tour.
“When he’s ready to play his best tennis and play with passion, is one of these guys. When he’s doing the other stuff, of course I don’t like.’’
Kyrgios: ”I don’t really know Rafa. I’ve never, like, hung out with him or anything like that. I don’t really dislike him.
I never said … I mean, I don’t know him at all. Hell of a tennis player. Don’t know him as a person. I’m sure he’s OK.’’
One of the fastest players between points and one of the slowest last played at 2019 Wimbledon, the site of the Australia’s giant-slaying effort in 2014 at the age of just 19.
The grasscourt sequel included Kyrgios admitting he tried to drill Nadal with a forehand, and refusing to apologise, before Nadal won in four sets.
“At the end of the day, we’re two different tennis players. We go about it completely different,’’ said the 26th seed, who will return to the top 20, at least, and go higher still if he reaches his first slam quarter-final in five years.
“After Wimbledon, I lost, I got beaten by the better player. I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and said, ‘Too good’.
“Regardless (of) if we don’t like each other or whatever, I think there’s a layer of respect. He’s one of the greatest of all time. I also read that he thinks I’m good for the sport … Doesn’t necessarily mean we like each other.’’
Yet if Kyrgios is showing positive signs in rehabilitating his public image, the same can not be said for another controversial tennis figure: Margaret Court.
The recognition – not celebration, remember, for Tennis Australia is rightly appalled by her homophobic remarks – of the 50th anniversary of Court’s calendar Grand Slam is scheduled for Rod Laver Arena on Monday.
The outspoken owner of 24 singles slams has voiced her displeasure about not being honoured with the same fanfare as Laver was 12 months ago for his unprecedented repeat of a similar feat.
Others believe that not only should Court be ignored altogether, but that her name should also be removed from Melbourne Park’s third largest court.
Laver acknowledged the deep and widespread hurt caused by some of Court’s views, “just the things she says and thinks’’, and the difficulty in separating the person from the athlete and their achievements.
“I think you’re looking at a tennis player. I got the credits from being a tennis player, not anything else, and that’s the way people should think of what Margaret did,’’ Laver said.
“She won the Grand Slam. I hope she has a good year of celebration.’’