Nick Kyrgios threw himself around the court. He fought. Bled. Argued. Took and lost a two-sets-to-love lead and two match points. Threatened to unravel.
Yet what he also did, after the longest match of his career, was to join Ash Barty in the Australian Open’s fourth round. Tantalisingly, world No.1 Rafael Nadal awaits.
A spent, emotional Kyrgios struggled for words immediately afterwards, having beaten Russian 16th seed Karen Khachanov 6-2 7-6 6-7 6-7 7-6 to earn a rapturous ovation on his favourite court.
In a dramatic match tiebreak, the 26th seed finally converted his third match point, almost two hours after the first, to prevail in four hours and 26 minutes.
Kyrgios thus took his record at Melbourne Arena to 9-2, and the 26th seed into the round-of-16 at Melbourne Park for the third time.
“Man, it was crazy. I don’t even know what to say right now. That was insane. I’ve got no words for how I’m feeling right now,’’ Kyrgios said in his on court interview.
“None of that would have happened without my team, that’s for sure, They supported me the whole time. You guys were unbelievable again.’’
Asked about the leg injury suffered on serve late in the first set that required a medical timeout, Kyrgios preferred to talk about the what had just occurred. “Man, this is just epic, man, I don’t even know what’s going on.
“Honestly my legs feel about 40 kilos each.’’
Instead, a weight may have been lifted in a different sense, for although, as ever, a range of emotions were on display, Kyrgios did not self-destruct. The previous match between the pair was most famous for Kyrgios-losing-the-plot completely – at the Cincinnati Masters last August, when the Russian won in three sets. This really may be New and Improved Nick. We shall see.
I was losing it mentally a little bit. Obviously it wasn’t easy losing the third and then losing the fourth after having match points, but as I said, my support team just willed me over the line. I thought I was gonna lose, honestly.
“It’s emotional. I haven’t had a moment like that for four or five years. Since I last played here against (Andreas) Seppi (in 2015), so one the best wins of my career, I think.’’
There was no lack of effort from either player, with Khachanov calling his own medical time-out to treat a right shoulder injury early in the fourth set as Kyrgios flung himself around the court with laudable desperation and seemed to be managing his own medical issue well enough.
But skin-on-hardcourt can be a rough combination, and two points after diving for a backhand volley Kyrgios exploded, not unreasonably, when given a time violation by chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein in that ninth game.
He had tried to spare the ball kid the need to handle a bloodied towel used to clean-up his grazed hand, with Lichtenstein unaware and running down the shot clock as a result.
“I had blood all over the towel. I told the ball kid not to touch it,’’ he protested. With feeling.
After two aces to hold serve, the exchange continued at the change-over, Lichtenstein confirming he had been unaware of the circumstances, and would have handled things differently if he had. Despite Kyrgios’ protests, the warning stood.
By then, though, blood had truly become the theme, for the Australian’s red stuff was boiling, and he risked losing his cool altogether.
Eventually, a third consecutive set would finish in a tiebreak and Kyrgios would need to regroup. The fifth set was dominated by the server, but the match tiebreak see-sawed, until a Khachanov backhand flew wide and the victor threw himself on his back on to the court.
Kyrgios was generous in his praise of Khachanov, describing the former world No.8 as “an absolute warrior”.
“He’s a young kid, he’s younger than me, by a year, so he’s going to have an incredible career, he already has so he’s going to be one to dose special things, that’s for sure. He’s an amazing player. He’s won some amazing titles already, so it’s just the beginning or him.’’
And, for Kyrgios, the start of what will be a super-hyped build up to Monday night’s rematch with rival Nadal, whom he has a beaten three times out of seven, which he took care to point out was still a losing record, however impressive relatively.
Whatever happens between us he’s an an amazing player. He’s arguably the greatest of all time, so I’m not even thinking about it right now. I’m just think about my legs, getting them in an ice bath and getting some food or something.
“He’s a champion, so I’m going to do everything I can now and give everything I can now and hopefully it will be enough.’’
While Kyrgios has toned down his class-clown routine in favour of becoming a more serious type of entertainer, for this month, at least, it is hard not to be amused when Nadal is asked about the Australian.
Nadal furrows his brow under that ubiquitous Spanish-bull-horned sponsor’s hat when asked an English-language question he does not understand, or would sometimes prefer not to.
This one: “Do you like Nick Kyrgios? Do you get on with him?”
Cue quizzical look. Lack of comprehension.
The question is repeated. A pause still precedes the answer.
Words. Chosen. Carefully.
“I don’t know. I don’t know him personally, honestly, to have a clear opinion. Yeah, my answer is better to …’’ said Nadal, trailing off before getting to the real point.
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.’’
No arguments there, including from Kyrgios in his more sensible moments, of which there have lately been several more. Perhaps it’s true that he’s not, after all, New Nick, but just The Nick He’s Always Been Showing His Better Side.
There is absolutely no doubt, though, that the pair share a prickly history, and an on-court head-to-head that started with the shock victory of a 19-year-old Kyrgios over then then world No.1 on Wimbledon’s centre court in 2014.
A bit like Skyhooks v Sherbet or Ford v Holden back in the (long ago) day, many tennis people are either Rafa or Roger.
Kyrgios is unashamedly a Federer man. Since that unforgettable debut meeting, the pair is 3-3, which is put into context with the reminder that Kyrgios’ peak ranking is 13th and Nadal’s haul of majors is 19.
In a revealing No Challenges Remaining podcast last year with US tennis writer Ben Rothenberg, Kyrgios described Nadal, his “polar opposite’’, as “super salty” in defeat.
“When he wins, it’s fine,’’ Kyrgios said. “He won’t say anything bad, he’ll credit the opponent, ‘He was a great player’. But as soon as I beat him, it’s just like, ‘He has no respect for me, my fans and no respect to the game’’
“And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? I literally played this way when I beat you the other previous times and nothing changed, nothing changed’.”
The fact that Kyrgios mimicked Nadal’s hair-tucking, jocks-tugging pre-serve routine to emphasis what slow play and Nike-clad snails really look like would not have been lost on the Spaniard, who gave a typically thorough critique of the Millman-Federer match tiebreak that he had watched after ordering room service on Friday night.
Nadal keeps a keen eye on Kyrgios, too, have no doubt. Monday’s will be an up-close viewing, directly across the net for the eighth time.
So it is that Australia Day dawns with the host nation’s respective singles No.1s, so contrasting in style and personality, having in common that they are both still alive in the respective singles draws.
It’s safer to predict what will come from Barty but after such a momentous night for Kyrgios, fascinating to see what lies ahead.