WIMBLEDON, England — Going up against the tennis talents of Nick Kyrgios, a powerful Australian with hands as soft as a masseuse’s, is difficult enough in itself.
However, this is only the beginning. A practitioner of psychological warfare, Kyrgios may be even more formidable.
The outspoken, charismatic villain of the sport, whose antics stole the limelight at Wimbledon, casts a spell over the huge crowds that fill stadiums to watch his matches, even on Wimbledon’s supposed temple of propriety, Center Court.
Amid rallies, trick shots between the legs, twisting and curling winners and anti-social theatrics force opponents to challenge Kyrgios and thousands of viewers looking for the next episode of tennis’ most unpredictable and impactful show.
“Come on Nick!” he shouts as if he’s a friend playing darts in the pub.
His regular fights with the officials break out without warning and can resurface throughout the match. He knows how much he is loved and hated, and when a Grand Slam becomes a soap opera with him like this, his game is exactly where he wants it to be.
“I’m sitting here now in the Wimbledon quarterfinals again and I know there are so many people who are so upset,” he said after overcoming Brandon Nakashima of the United States in five sets 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 on Monday (2), 3-6, 6-2. “It feels good.
Kyrgios has fought his own psychological battles through extreme ups and downs his erratic career. A few years ago, his agent had to drag him out of a pub at 4am because he had a match against Rafael Nadal later that day. He knows as well as anyone that tennis is as much a mental battle as a physical one, maybe more so. He claws at the opponent’s concentration and does what he can to force the guy across the net to start thinking about the drama and not his game.
Here are the facts about Kyrgios’ fourth-round match against Nakashima, the rising, poised, 20-year-old American, which came two days after Kyrgios is angry with Stefanos Tsitsipas it was a circus of shouting matches with the officials that so unnerved Tsitsipas, the fourth-seeded Greek star, that he began 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 land a forehand return of Nakashima’s serve. In the latter stages of the set, Kyrgios, whose cannon serve is among his most powerful weapons, was catching and massaging the area around his right triceps muscle during exchanges and between points.
After several serves and forehands, he jerked and repeatedly rotated his arm as if trying to stretch the joint and the muscles around it.
Kyrgios, unable to swing freely and unable to release serves at nearly 140 miles per hour as he had in his first three matches, stopped chasing and reaching for balls. In the tenth game, Nakashima, playing with his typical efficiency, repeatedly pounced on Kyrgios’ lowered serve to take the first set 6-4. The young American looked like he was on cruise control.
The umpire and tournament official asked Kyrgios if he was OK and if he needed medical attention. He waved them both away, but as the second set began there was more shoulder rubbing, more twitching and more arm rotation. Instead of a windmill, Kyrgios’ forehand has become a wrist whip that sends opponents running backwards.
Sometimes there is nothing as difficult as playing against an injured opponent. The players tell themselves not to change anything, to play as if everything is normal. But the mind may instinctively relax and suggest that the next forehand not be hit as close to the line or as hard, as it may not be necessary against a weakened opponent.
On Monday afternoon, Nakashima couldn’t ignore Kyrgios’ jerks and shoulder grabs or his much slower-than-usual walk from one side of the court to the other to win another point.
The more Kyrgios rubbed his shoulder, the more hesitant Nakashima became. He missed seven of eight first serves in the third game of the second set, then missed a forehand on a break point and Kyrgios suddenly had the momentum.
And then the numbers on the board tracking Kyrgios’ serve speed began to climb, from 110 to 120 miles per hour and beyond. And blasted forehands started to appear again. Kyrgios, serving in a tight moment late in the set, hit 137 and 132 on the radar gun. A few minutes later he was level.
Nakashima settled early in the third set. On serve, in the middle, Kyrgios called a physical therapist and a medical timeout. When Kyrgios received a massage, Nakashima got up from his chair and did a shadow exercise facing the stands instead of Kyrgios.
Back on court, Kyrgios once again served well over 120 mph. He extended his lead in the tiebreak with a 129 mph ace, then won with a forehand return.
“After the medical timeout, he was still serving well, still ripping the ball, so I don’t think it was that big of an injury,” said Nakashima, who had no answer to Kyrgios’ serve or forehand in the third-set tiebreak.
The shoulder drama – Kyrgios later described it as one of his “bad guys” that he was treating with some painkillers – ended there.
Another set, another mind game. Serving at 3-5, Kyrgios could have won the game and forced Nakashi to serve for the set, allowing Kyrgios to serve first in the decider.
Not so much. How about three serves in the 75mph range, one underhand and a set point forehand so obviously headed out of bounds? (It hit its mark.) Has Kyrgios retired now?
“Complete rope and dope tactics,” Kyrgios said. “I just dropped that service game. I knew he was in rhythm. He was starting to get to me. I just wanted to throw him off a little bit.”
It worked, judging by an ace and a running volley that perfectly shaved off the grass in his first service game.
There were calls on calls he thought were wrong and a few on his snaps that were clearly off. Nakashima serving at deuce at 1-1 created an opportune time for Kyrgios to start ranting with the umpire. He then hit a backhand on break point and delivered a backhand squash to draw an error for a break of serve.
And it was pretty much curtains from there. A 134 mph serve put Kyrgios on match point at 5-2. A surprise serve and volley on the second serve to match point sealed it.
Next in the quarterfinals is Cristian Garin of Chile, who is ranked 43rd in the world. The show goes on and maybe on and on.