It was a car crash, a breakdown, a duel, a brawl, a curiosity, a circus, a stare down, a melodrama. It was staccato, it was breathtaking, it was controversial, it was unrelenting and unforgiving and unsparing. Nick Kyrgios versus Stefanos Tsitsipas was a third-round match in the Gentlemen’s Singles at Wimbledon but it felt like tennis for a new age and no one could take their eyes off it for a second.
It was played on the lawns of SW19 amid the strawberries and the cream and the church spires and the gentle walk up the hill into the affluent suburbia of Wimbledon village but if ever a match felt like it was being contested in a dystopia, this was it. This wasn’t Roger and Rafa or even Novak and Sir Andy. This was Number One Court but it was tennis with the gloves off.
Mental disintegration was an attritional tactic favoured by Steve Waugh’s Australia cricket teams and Kyrgios’s chirping from the other side of the net wore Tsitsipas down to the point where, in his post-match press conference, the No 4 seed assassinated the character of his opponent. ‘It’s constant bullying,’ the Greek said of Kyrgios. ‘He was probably a bully at school. I don’t like bullies. He has a very evil side to him.’
Nick Kyrgios knocked out Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in a controversial showdown
Both players were warned by the umpire in the second set, Kyrgios for abusive language, and Tsitsipas for smashing a ball into the crowd at the end of the set when Kyrgios passed him at the net. Kyrgios suggested volubly that Tsitsipas should have been more heavily punished for what he did and he had a point. For all his own histrionics, Kyrgios had not erred to that extent.
‘It’s a default, bro,’ Kyrgios said to the umpire at the changeover. The umpire did not appear to have seen Tsitsipas lash a backhand into the first tier of spectators so Kyrgios persisted. ‘So you can hit a ball into the crowd and it hits someone and you don’t get defaulted?’ he asked. ‘Are you dumb? You’re a disgrace. You just change the rules for everyone.’ If the ball had hit a spectator, the match might have ended there and then but the spectators would have been robbed of rare drama.
It ended late in the evening with the roof closed and the crowd at fever pitch and Kyrgios the victor in four sets, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6. He might be unseeded but there is a Goran-Ivanisevic-2001-vibe about him in this tournament. Wimbledon may not know whether to laugh or cry about the prospect of this renegade advancing deep into the tournament but there is no denying that he is box office.
Tsitsipas is out now and the bottom half of the draw has opened up for Kyrgios. Matteo Berrettini withdrew because of Covid, and there is no Daniil Medvedev because of a ban on Russian players after the invasion of Ukraine.
Kyrgios will play Brandon Nakashima of the USA in the fourth round and if he keeps progressing, Rafael Nadal is scheduled to be waiting for him in the semi-final.
Australian Open semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas was seeded fourth for the tournament
There is no love lost between those two either. It will be another match to grab the popcorn and lean forward in your seat. Sometimes people come to watch Kyrgios play for the same reason crowds went to see Evel Knievel try to jump 20 double-decker buses on his motorbike. They come to see the crash. They come for the outbursts. They come for the rant at the umpire. They come to see him calling a line judge a snitch. They come for the meltdown. And, almost always, they get it.
Sometimes, it is unsettling. Sometimes, it feels a little like that time a quarter of a century ago when Oliver McCall broke down in the ring when he was fighting Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas and turned away from his opponent during the contest. Sometimes, it feels as though the pressure is too much for the Australian and that he will break under it. Tsitsipas thinks it is all a ruse. Kyrgios appears to think it is merely normal behaviour.
Against Tsitsipas, he looked like a man going through a thousand tortures. He shook his head after almost every point. That shake of the head seemed to convey different emotions at different times: disbelief, contempt, dismay, resentment, anger. He even complained when a replay confirmed a call had gone against him. His rationale appeared to be that the decision was so close the line judge could not have seen it with the naked eye.
But beyond all this, beyond all the antics, beyond the under-arm serves, beyond all the dystopia, the main reason people love to watch Kyrgios play is the talent. He plays tennis in technicolour and he makes even an opponent like Tsitsipas look like he is playing in black and white. He is, former US Open finalist Greg Rusedski said earlier in the day, the most naturally talented player on the tour. He should be in the world’s top five, Rusedski said, even when he is having a bad year.
Amid the chaos, Kyrgios was beautiful to watch yesterday. Not content with producing an under-arm serve, it had to be a between-the-legs under-arm serve. Tsitsipas, by the way, put the return into the net. Kyrgios was impossibly brave at times, taking the serve of Tsitsipas so early that his returns gave his Greek opponent no time to react when it came arrowing back at him. On one occasion, Kyrgios advanced so high up the court that he missed the serve completely when it came at him. He kept taking the gamble.
The Australian has claimed that he is not motivated by winning the sport’s greatest prizes
His forehand was rasping and clean and pure, a bravura shot that won him point after point. His touch at the net was sublime. His variety of shot and his confidence in attempting what often seemed impossible was a delight.
He plays so fast it is as if he does not want any time to think. It is as if he does not want to let his thoughts crowd in on him. He serves before the ballboys and girls are back in their positions. He plays on instinct and on adrenaline and on resentment and on pure talent.
Kyrgios now has a great chance to reach the final of Wimbledon this year
You want an idea of how his service games can go: at 4-4 in the second set, he won the first three points in less than a minute, the third when he drifted a drop shot over the net and it clipped the net cord on its way down. Then he lost the next three points almost as fast, one with a drop shot that hit the bottom of the net. He went break point down and saved it with a second-serve ace. Then he served out the game. It was like a game of speed tennis. It was mind-blowing.
In the third set, Tsitsipas began to show signs of pressure, as if he could not cope with the eccentricities and the brilliance of Kyrgios. With Kyrgios up 5-3 and the game tied at 30-30, the Australian floated another drop shot towards the other side of the court; it clipped the net cord and trickled over. Kyrgios turned around and bowed theatrically to the crowd.
The fourth set went with serve but the tennis was brilliant to the end. It went to a tie-break and when Tsitsipas forced a second set point, Kyrgios saved it with a brilliant half-volley pick-up that Tsitsipas could not reach.
There was no love lost between Kyrgios and Tsitsipas following a heated and bitter match
Kyrgios regularly vented his frustration at the umpire, his opponent and his own box
A point later, Kyrgios had a second match point and he won it with another beautifully judged drop shot from the back of the court that his opponent could not retrieve.
After the match, Kyrgios said he had ‘ultimate respect’ for Tsitsipas but he revised his opinion when he heard what Tsitsipas had had to say about him. He said Tsitsipas was too ‘soft’ and that that was what was holding him back. He also said the Greek was not well liked in the locker room. He said that Tsitsipas had not even been ‘man enough’ to shake his hand properly at the end of the match.
He could not resist one last dig, either. ‘Everywhere I go, I seem to have full stadiums. The media loves to say I’m bad for the sport but clearly I’m not.’
If Kyrgios stays in this tournament much longer, it could be the kind of second week that Wimbledon has not seen for some time.
Tsitsipas said Kyrgios was a ‘bully’ and had ‘evil’ in him after his four-set defeat on Court One