Sport Tennis Kyrgios knows a man that has his own back also needs to front up
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Kyrgios knows a man that has his own back also needs to front up

Nick Kyrgios is in form, but still has work to do. Photo: AAP
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So Nick Kyrgios got his way. On Friday night, he will play his Australian Open third round on his favourite court, John Cain Arena. Familiar, too, is the potential for an outcome Kyrgios will be working hard to change.

In reigning US Open champion Dominic Thiem, the world No.47 faces a high-single-figure seed straight after a dramatic and demanding victory over a lower-ranked rival.

Variations on the general theme have occurred in 2015, 2018 and 2020. None ended well.

Admittedly, losses were to the quality trio of Andy Murray, Gregor Dimitrov and Rafael Nadal. Still, seven-time major winner and Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander is among those who believe that the kind of match Kyrgios has lost previously at Melbourne Park is exactly the type he must win if he is to reach the next level.

Among the most recent major winners, Kyrgios boasts multiple career victories against Nadal (3-5 head to head), Novak Djokovic (2-0 ) and Stan Wawrinka (3-3) and has beaten Roger Federer (1-6) and Murray (1-5). Yet an 11-17 career record against top five players generally contrasts with a 1-8 tally at the majors, where matches are best-of-five sets.

Against Thiem, Kyrgios retired with an elbow injury from his only clash with the 27-year-old Austrian, in 2015 on clay in Nice.

“He trains like an absolute animal. He’s consistent every day,’’ said Kyrgios, a not-always-so-dedicated 25.

Got his own back: Nick Kyrgios. Photo: AAP

“And I actually have a lot of respect for him. I think his style of tennis is not easy to play. He’s super physical. But I’m not even thinking about it. Like, I’m just hurting thinking about playing him right now.’’

He was also, joked Old Man Nick, in the mood for a quiet glass of red wine. Admittedly, though, those words were spoken in the early hours of Thursday, following his exhilarating five-set defeat of 29th seed Ugo Humbert.

The Canberran had trailed by two sets to one (not a new thing here) and saved two match points in the fourth (a personal Australian Open first).

Acknowledging he would need to raise his level against Thiem, the 2020 finalist, Philosophical Nick said: “I’m going to go out there, serve, play with instinct, and if it’s enough, it’s enough. If it isn’t, I’m all right with that.

“He’s one of the best players in the world so he’s for sure going to be able to rise to that occasion. He’s not going to be scared about it. He’s excited. That’s what makes him so good. He’s one of the players that thrives in big-match situations…

“So, yeah, I’m expecting him to play his best tennis, and I’m not going to go in there saying, I’m playing my best tennis or I’m feeling the best, but I’m going to go in there saying I’ve got a good chance.’’

Introspective Nick has taken to referencing what goes on in the “dark places” inside his head. And Sensitive Nick is apparently more affected by media negativity than it sometimes appears. Has been since he was a “child” of 17 or 18, but feels especially vulnerable after such a difficult year for so many.

“I know that many people don’t think that I have a heart or, you know, compete as hard as they want me to compete from time to time,’’ he said. “But I have been through a lot, and I didn’t just put my hand in a lucky dip and just appear here.

“I put in a lot of hard work when I was young. I’ve gone through a lot, and nothing’s really been handed to me.

I’ve won all the matches on my own. I don’t have a coach. I do everything basically on my own, you know, and I always got myself. I always got my back.

So do others, and Good Mate Nick had a light practice hit yesterday, before supporting his friend Thanasi Kokkinakis through the latter stages of the South Australian’s brave but losing battle with Stefanos Tsitsipas on Rod Laver Arena. Their scheduled doubles match was later cancelled.

Kyrgios is continuing to manage the left knee that required arthroscopic surgery about four months ago to repair a meniscus tear. Yet it may also have contributed to the relatively subdued expectations he carried into his eighth home slam, and where he made such an impact last year with his bushfire fundraising initiative and inspired effort against Karen Khachanov before losing to Nadal.

He would play just one more – incomplete – match in 2020, having preferred the safety of home in Canberra to the potential risk of a return to the circuit when it resumed after a five-month Covid-19 hiatus.

“I think the best thing that happened to him was this break, for sure,’’ close friend and sometime doubles partner Matt Reid told The New Daily. “I feel like he’s ready to start travelling and competing again.

“I’m not sure whether it’s changed him, but he is probably more relaxed and calmer on the court and just enjoying his tennis a bit more than he used to.

“He’s probably missed the competitiveness but also when you see the same people every day it becomes a bit of a grind, so I think now that he hasn’t seen everyone for so long, I think he’s kind of got a bit fired up and I think it’s showing on the court.’’

Defeats on Thursday to Kokkinakis, Alexei Popyrin, Chris O’Connell, Daria Gavrilova and Sam Stosur leaves the respective Australian No.1s as the others remaining Australians in the singles draws.

Ash Barty and Alex de Minaur both advanced to the third round in straight sets, and if Barty’s new addition was some heavy strapping on her left thigh, then Sofia Kenin – who beat the top seed in the semis last year – has been removed from her path.

Asked whether she was surprised by the elimination of the defending champion, Barty admitted she had only just heard the news. Yet she bristled slightly, to the minor extent that she ever does, at a follow-up question, suggesting she was not even aware Kenin was the next highest seed in her half.

On a lighter note, there is a suspicion that the 2019 pact with her team to slip in a Disney reference during her post-match Wimbledon interviews has been replaced with something more organic this time.

Pre-tournament, it was brussels sprouts; on Tuesday, pepper and (for obvious reasons), bagels; on Thursday, the second set in which she was taken to a tiebreak by Fed Cup teammate Gavrilova after leading 5-2, was apparently “turning into a little bit of a prickly pear”.

That, she said, was a result of losing her way” tactically for a period, which she considers a natural consequence of playing so little tennis over the past 12 months. Yet a result, perhaps, of her recent flurry of matches is the thigh issue she would not specify beyond “my leg muscle”.

“It came on early Tuesday, warming up for the match,’’ said Barty, who next plays 29th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova. “But, yeah, obviously it’s not affecting the way that I can play in any way. It’s just more giving the leg some assistance to make sure it doesn’t get to a point where it’s going to affect me.’’

Kenin’s exit was a teary one – overpowered 6-3, 6-2 by Kaia Kanepi, then admitting she had failed to handle the nerves or the pressure of her first major title defence.

“The Aussie swing really got me,’’ said Kenin, who had won just four games against Garbine Muguruza in her final lead-up match, and was pushed by Australian wildcard Maddison Inglis in round one.

“Since last year, like, I won, then obviously I feel like everyone is kind of expecting me to do that. It’s obviously tough … I felt like I obviously wasn’t there. My head wasn’t there.”

Her situation was vastly different last year, arriving in more under-the-radar fashion as neither a wunderkind like Coco Gauff, nor a legend like Serena Williams. She returned this time as the fourth seed, having reached the French Open final at her most recent major, yet aware the attention would build at Melbourne Park.

“I obviously felt like I’m not there 100% physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off obviously. It’s not good,’’ she said.

“I mean, I just, I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure. I’m not obviously used to this, so right now I just got to figure out how to play at that level that I played at.’’