WIMBLEDON, England — Going up against the tennis talents of Nick Kyrgios, the mighty Aussie with hands as smooth as a masseur’s, is tough enough in its own right.
However, that is only the beginning. Kyrgios, a practitioner of psychological warfare, may be even more formidable.
The sport’s charismatic and outspoken bad boy, whose antics have stolen the Wimbledon spotlight, casts a spell on the huge crowds that fill the stadiums to watch his matches, even on Wimbledon’s Center Court, that supposed temple of decorum.
Mid-play trick shots between the legs, twisting and curving winners and anti-social theatrics force opponents to face Kyrgios and thousands of viewers looking for another episode of tennis’s most unpredictable and compelling spectacle.
“Come on Nick!” they yell like it’s a friend playing darts in the pub.
His usual fights with the referees break out without warning and can reappear throughout the match. He knows how much they love and hate him, and when a Grand Slam tournament turns into a soap opera starring him, as this one has, his game is right where he wants it to be.
“I sit here now at the Wimbledon quarterfinals again, and I know there are so many people who are very upset,” he said after beating Brandon Nakashima of the United States on Monday in five sets, 4-6, 6-4. , 7 -6(2), 3-6, 6-2. “It’s a good feeling.”
Kyrgios has waged his own psychological battles through the extreme ups and downs of his erratic career. A few years ago, his agent had to drag him out of a bar at 4 in the morning because that same day he had a match against Rafael Nadal. He knows better than anyone that tennis is as much a mental struggle as it is a physical one, maybe more so. He shakes the opponent’s concentration from him, doing his best to force the boy through the net to start thinking about the drama instead of the game.
These are the facts of Kyrgios’ fourth-round match against Nakashima, a no-nonsense, rising 20-year-old American, which came two days after Kyrgios defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas, which was a circus of shouting matches with officials. that so unsettled Tsitsipas, the fourth-seeded Greek star, that he started trying to hit Kyrgios with his shots, and usually missed.
Midway through the first set against Nakashima, Kyrgios appeared to injure his right upper arm and shoulder while trying to forcefully return Nakashima’s serve. In the later stages of the set, Kyrgios, whose cannon serve is one of his most potent weapons, was gripping and massaging the area around his right triceps muscle on switchbacks and between points.
He grimaced after a few serves and forehands and repeatedly rotated his arm, as if trying to stretch the joint and the muscles around it.
Unable to move freely and unable to unleash that nearly 140mph serve like he did in his first three matches, Kyrgios stopped chasing and reaching for balls. In game ten, Nakashima, playing with characteristic efficiency, repeatedly jumped over Kyrgios’ diminishing serve to take the first set, 6-4. The young American seemed to be on cruise control.
The referee and a tournament official asked Kyrgios if he was okay and if he needed medical attention. He waved them both away, but as the second set began, there was more shoulder rubbing, more flinching, more arm rotation. Kyrgios’s forehand turned into a whip instead of the windmill that sends opponents running backwards.
Sometimes there is nothing as difficult as playing against an injured opponent. Players tell themselves not to change anything, to play as if everything is normal. But the mind may instinctively relax, suggesting not hitting the next forehand too close to the line or too hard because it may not be necessary against a weakened opponent.
On Monday afternoon, Nakashima couldn’t ignore Kyrgios’ grimaces and shoulder grabs or his much slower-than-usual walks from one side of the court to the other for the next point.
The more Kyrgios rubbed that shoulder, the more tentative Nakashima became. He missed seven of eight first serves in the third game of the second set, then missed a forehand on break point and suddenly Kyrgios had the momentum.
And then the numbers on the board that tracked Kyrgios’ serve speed started to climb, from 110 to 120 in miles per hour and up from there. And the damn forehands started to reappear. Serving in a tough spot late in the set, Kyrgios hit 137 and 132 on the radar. Minutes later, he was all tied.
Nakashima calmed down early in the third set. In the service, Kyrgios requested the physical therapist and a medical time out. When Kyrgios received a massage, Nakashima got up from his chair and performed shadow drills in front of the stands in Kyrgios’s place.
Back on the court, Kyrgios once again served well above 120 mph. He extended his lead in a tiebreak with a 129 mph ace, then won with a forehand return.
“He was still serving well after the medical timeout, still hitting the ball, so I don’t think it was that big of an injury,” said Nakashima, who had no answers for Kyrgios’ serve or forehand in the third-set tiebreak.
That shoulder pain (Kyrgios later described it as one of his “issues” that he had treated with some painkillers) ended there.
Another set, another mind game. Kyrgios, serving at 3-5, could have won the game and had Nakashima serve out the set so Kyrgios could serve first in the decider.
Not that much. How about three serves in the 75mph range, one underhand and a forehand on set point so obviously headed off the court? (He hit the mark.) Was Kyrgios giving up now?
“Complete rope-a-dope tactic,” Kyrgios said. “I just threw out that service game. I knew I was in a rhythm. He was starting to get on top of me. I just wanted to throw him off a bit.”
It worked, judging by the aces and the running volley that he shaved perfectly on the grass in his first service game.
There were challenges on calls that he thought were wrong, and some shots of his that were clearly out. Nakashima serving to two at 1-1 was a convenient moment for Kyrgios to start arguing with the chair umpire. He then stabbed a backhand for break point and landed a back-spin squash to induce the error for a break of serve.
And it was largely curtains from there. A 134 mph serve took Kyrgios to match point at 5-2. A surprise serve and volley on the second serve on match point sealed it.
Cristian Garin of Chile, ranked 43rd in the world, is next in the quarterfinals. The show goes on, and maybe it goes on and on.