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Kyrgios-Nadal match may be the best Wimbledon can serve up this fortnight
Nadal vs. Federer is what tennis fans want, but that's chess. This was the sport chess is meant to be a substitute for - war

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Friday, July 5, 2019 – Page B9

LONDON -- 4-3 With Thursday's four-set victory, Rafael Nadal of Spain takes a 4-3 lead in head-to-head matches against Nick Kyrgios of Australia. The only other time the two have faced each other at Wimbledon was in 2014, when Kyrgios prevailed.

18 Nadal, who won his 18th career Grand Slam title at the French Open last month, is second over all in men's tennis to Swiss rival Roger Federer, who has won 20.

On the night before the most anticipated match of his career, Nick Kyrgios went to a pub on Wimbledon's high street. He had a few drinks.

Took a few selfies. Charmed the locals.

Why he would do that was a topic of general conversation around Wimbledon on Thursday morning.

The consensus: because he's Nick Kyrgios. He does what he likes.

Or, more to the point, he does what he thinks you won't like.

Kyrgios is a fascinating, infuriating and quite likely damaged person. By Thursday evening, he'd shown he's also one of the great tennis talents at work. In terms of raw, untapped ability, perhaps the greatest.

Kyrgios lost to Rafael Nadal, which hardly matters. He was always going to lose. This was a contest between a jackhammer and an industrial laser. They both cut things apart, but one does so much more precisely.

Nadal's secret is his relentlessness. Despite that, the Spaniard rarely gets above a low boil on the court. But through his body language and hard stares, he made it clear his feeling for Kyrgios is more than dislike. It's something very close to hatred.

By the end, even he was moved to salute the enemy.

"It's amazing how good he's able to play," Nadal said immediately after the 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) stunner. "If he's able to forget about all this stuff [Ed. Note: more on that in a minute] potentially he's a Grand Slam winner and fighting for the sport's best ranking."

For Kyrgios, it was a typical day at the office. That is, if your typical day at the office was arriving, flipping your desk, berating your boss, shrieking at your colleagues and throwing all the stuff in your drawers through a closed window.

Emotion has always been the Australian's great failing - either too much of it or too little. Kyrgios bores easily, and then acts out. After his boozy evening, he went into the late-afternoon contest sluggish. He surrendered the first set in 20 minutes. Then he woke up.

By the second, Kyrgios was complaining bitterly and incessantly to the umpire about Nadal's time-wasting (a very fair point).

The umpire tried to warn Nadal about it as he came out of a break. Nadal glared back at him and screamed "NO!" a few times.

A half hour in, we were about to get under way.

From that point on, the tennis became electric. Nadal can really hit the ball. Kyrgios hits it harder.

Nadal may be the best returner of serve in the game's history. At times, he could just barely get Kyrgios's serve back over the net.

For his part, Kyrgios was emptying out his shipping container's worth of tricks - underhand serves, leaping John Woo forehands, pacing around muttering to himself like a mad monk.

Early on, he put a hard forehand into Nadal's mid-section.

You could almost convince yourself it was an accident. Nadal didn't think so.

By then, it was well and truly on. The Centre Court crowd didn't know who to root for any more - the forces of light or those of chaos. They chose instead to root for tennis and let the winning and losing sort itself out.

Kyrgios took the second set. It tightened in the third.

When he won that frame on the tiebreak, Nadal jumped four feet in the air, flexed and bellowed. This was a second-round match. He doesn't do anything like it after he wins an actual Grand Slam.

As he won, Nadal wagged a finger at his box - "You shall not pass." The handshake was quick and cordial.

If Kyrgios's juice is rubbing it in everywhere - in interviews, on TV, during random conversation - Nadal knows only how to do likewise on the court. That's his juice. Thursday was the closest we see Nadal to preening in front of a beaten opponent. Under the circumstances, it felt fair.

But there is no shame in it for Kyrgios. People have always wanted to believe in him. After years spent playing the fool, he just gave them a reason to keep doing so.

It was a match so preposterously excellent that when it ended after four sets, that seemed an injustice. It is hard to believe we will see anything better in this tournament, or in this year.

Nadal vs. Federer is what people want, but that's chess. This was the sport chess is meant to be a substitute for - war.

The genesis of the mutual bad feeling was comments Kyrgios made recently about Nadal ("salty") and Nadal's uncle and mentor ("idiot").

Nadal didn't engage, but also didn't shrug them off. They take this kind of thing seriously in Mallorca.

In the postmatch, Kyrgios returned to his usual pout.

Someone asked about the pub outing.

Kyrgios: "You look way too excited to ask that question. You must have a boring life."

He toggled up and down the dial from maudlin to defiant.

"What do you want from me?" and "Why would I apologize?" eventually led into, "Yeah, I wanted to hit him square in the chest. He's got good hands."

He did praise Nadal's professionalism, saying it's something he lacks. But if this was Kyrgios burying the hatchet, at some point he's going to have to let go of the handle.

Nadal, in his quiet way, was more cutting.

Someone asked if Kyrgios could be a champion if he committed himself to the game.

"If, if, if," Nadal sighed.

"Doesn't exist."

But it does. It's that "if" that keeps Kyrgios relevant. People love his shenanigans, his whining, his walkouts, his childishness, but they wouldn't care if he were also a mediocre professional.

It's the combination of insufferability and promise that make Kyrgios so compelling.

One news conference ago, Kyrgios was cornered by Australian media. They'd shown his firstround match back home rather than that of fellow Australian and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.

Unfairly - it's not as though he programs the national broadcaster - reporters tried to press Kyrgios into expanding the controversy. It was worth a shot. Blowing things up is what Kyrgios does best.

He resisted at first, but he's not much of a resister when it comes to saying ill-advised things.

"At the end of the day, I know people are going to watch," Kyrgios said. "Like, they can say the way I play isn't right or [I'm] classless for the sport, all that sort of stuff. They're probably still going to be there watching."

Then, a couple of days later, he showed them why.

Associated Graphic

Rafael Nadal serves against Nick Kyrgios on Thursday, Day 4 of the 2019 Wimbledon tournament. Nadal prevailed in four sets.


Nick Kyrgios returns against Rafael Nadal during Thursday's slugfest at the All England Club in London.


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