jJust when you think you know someone, that’s when they come and let you down. On a balmy evening in front of an affectionate, even – he whispers – quietly adoring center court crowd, Nick Kyrgios confirmed his own mercurial nature, his basic inconsistency in remaining controlled, rigidly polite, and an all-around professional role model and steady guy throughout. throughout this victory in the fourth round against Brandon Nakashima.
In victory, Kyrgios was effusively courteous to his 20-year-old opponent. He paid tribute to his girlfriend (“the best girlfriend in the world”), made reference to his many friends in tennis and mentioned his excellent conversations with “Andy”. He even deflected a question about the potentially rule-breaking Air Jordans he’d used to walk the court with a wink and the words, “You’re still a champion.”
And sometimes, watching this, it was hard to know what exactly the drama-hungry global media was supposed to do. What is the line here? Is Kyrgios killing tennis by being too smooth and efficient? Does he need to relax a bit? In the end, Kyrgios won this slow five-set match with something to spare, leading 5-1 as he leveled himself up in the final set. He will now face Cristian Garín in the quarterfinals.
There were still some tough moments as the impressive Nakashima won the first and fourth sets. Sometimes Kyrgios would rub his upper arm. He sliced through some 77 mph serves like he was uncomfortable. At one point his hat turned blue: not as it turns out another blatant provocation, but the result of some dye coming off the grip of your racket. Unrepentant blue hat tennis stalker. Cap maniac flouts the rules. No. No, he just doesn’t stretch.
Instead, this was something else, an unexpectedly solid, controlled, low-key kind of victory. By the end, Kyrgios was generating coos and gurgles as he sprinted through the higher registers, throwing quick footless shots, bravura forehands, and then ending the match with a slap in the ear to the crowd as if to say: they’re Has he not entertained you (quietly and politely)?
There is, of course, much more satisfaction in watching Good Nick. For tennis insiders, the set of tennis badgers, the excitement around Kyrgios can be a source of annoyance. Kyrgios, they say, is a tennis genius for people who don’t know anything about tennis. This is entertainment, theater, easy access histrionics. By Monday morning, Kyrgios was even being praised on national radio as “a master of mind games,” an excellent case of missing the point entirely.
Masters of mind games tend to win things. Rafael Nadal, for example, who wins slams while people talk about how good he is. That is mastery. Kyrgios is number 40 in the world, mainly because he has to play with Kyrgios on the court every game, to deal with that circus every time, because it’s his circus.
Instead, the story with Kyrgios is about talent and how to find its limits, how to make it work in the brightest of lights. Even this fourth round tie had looked awkward from a certain angle. Nakashima is still only 20 years old, he has never won a title, he has never been above number 54 in the world. Kyrgios really, really should be winning this.
And center court was packed. Even the royal box was packed: Kyrgios is not just a box office; he is Royal Box Office, with a genuine sense of the glamor of the events at the venue as Kyrgios and Nakashima showed up.
At times, Kyrgios seemed to be on hold in that first set. There were second serve aces and forehand flips two feet above the baseline. The first underarm serve came out after 10 minutes. And for a while, both men advancing in a series of two- and three-minute games, Kyrgios landing his serves like a man shooting a can of Pringles.
He is such a relaxed, stooped figure with a cool walk, a man who in his own mind, even in the middle of a rally, is always Judd Nelson at the Breakfast Club. But here he met an opponent who never let his levels drop, and who seized his chance at 4-5 when Kyrgios suddenly fell apart, playing French cricket, hitting his long forehands and finding himself chasing the match.
At these moments, Kyrgios deviates. His footwork goes, his shots lose power. Tennis is about endless repetition, endless will, the appetite to do the same thing over and over again, with the same level of intensity. The games are long. Does Kyrgios really have that base level of obsession? Does he believe it? The best part of his game here was the way he picked it up when it mattered. The third set was won via a supremely competent tie break.
Nakashima took fourth. But Kyrgios came back, moving to 4-1 with a forehand that tore a hole in the crust of the earth (his shoulder seemed fine at this point) and spinning and roaring into his box for the first time.
There was even a brief glimpse of the earlier lead when Kyrgios was asked to summarize his own progress. “I’m here at the Wimbledon quarterfinals,” he said, flashing a full-power smile. “And I know there are so many people who are so upset. It’s a good feeling.