There were two kinds of upsets to marvel at on Tuesday, as Wimbledon became “Wimbledonnybrook.” One of those upsets offered a portrayal of an underdog surpassing a favorite on the favorite’s own terms, as Angelique Kerber outfought one of the best fighters in women’s tennis, Maria Sharapova. The write-up for that match is here.
The other memorable upset at the All-England Club on July 1 was a very different kind of upset. In this fourth-round thunderbolt of a result, a 19-year-old kid making his Wimbledon debut as a wild card took down a 14-time major champion. Unlike Kerber-Sharapova, this underdog — a much longer longshot — ambushed one of the foremost legends of tennis by doing things his own way. Therein lies the most remarkable aspect of an upset that certainly carries meaning in the present tense, but will have to wait for the passage of the next decade in order to be seen in a fuller light.
At Wimbledon in 2001, 19-year-old Roger Federer ended Pete Sampras’s reign at SW19. A lot of people thought at the time that Federer’s breakthrough heralded greatness. It took two years for Federer to win Wimbledon, and two and a half years to truly establish himself as the best player in the world, but indeed, that match gained every bit of the resonance it suggested in the present moment, 13 long years ago.
At Roland Garros in 2005, 19-year-old Rafael Nadal, making his French Open debut that year, snuffed out a frustrated Federer in a four-set semifinal. The steady, composed performance on terre battue ushered in the beginning of Nadal’s dominance over his great rival on red clay, setting a tone for the rest of tennis history.
On Tuesday, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios — the “g” is silent — fashioned the kind of win that, as was the case with Federer in 2001 and Nadal in 2005, identifies a child (in tennis terms) as “The Anointed One.” The Australian produced heaven-sent tennis, the kind of “God Mode” display which might tempt a tennis-loving Catholic community to chant the familiar “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”) in one moment and then “Kyrgios Eleison” (“Nick, have mercy!”) the next. What was astonishing to behold was not the avalanche of winners (70 in four sets against one of the best defenders of all time) or the parade of aces (37), but the fact that Kyrgios continued to find his best tennis in the moments that mattered most.
It really is preposterous — teenage wild cards are supposed to go the way of Donald Young, taking their lumps for at least a few years until they learn how to compete with the big boys. Players making a Wimbledon debut at a young age are supposed to pee their pants when they step onto the sporting green inside the cathedral of tennis. This link offers a buffet table of mind-blowing facts about Kyrgios and the historically improbable nature of his accomplishment.
Sure, Kyrgios had the booming serve and the bold groundstrokes that — if harnessed — could pose problems to Nadal in much the same way that Martin Klizan and especially Lukas Rosol showed in the first two rounds of this tournament. The obvious limitation resting on Kyrgios heading into this match, though, was his complete lack of experience on the biggest stage in tennis.
Surely — the reasoning went — this kid might have one and a half or two really good sets of tennis in him. That line of thought might have been generous to the Australian, but it was reasonably fair — after all, many of Nadal’s victims in this tournament and in years past were able to play one and a half quality sets, two at the maximum. However, Kyrgios was certainly going to fall short of winning three sets. That’s where the five-set test of the majors comes into play.
Tennis history is littered with hard-working souls who won one set and came achingly close to winning a second against the Nadals, Federers and Djokovices of the world. Very rarely do they actually close the sale. A 19-year-old might own supremely fresh legs, but at some point — according to the dictates of logic, at any rate — the kid was going to snap out of his trance. Kyrgios was going to absorb the enormity of the moment. His knees were going to wobble. He was going to pinch himself and realize he was playing a man who has already made a convincing case for being the greatest male tennis player who has ever walked the earth.
Surely, Kyrgios couldn’t bang and boom his way to three winning sets against Nadal.
Yet, that’s exactly what he did.
Men’s tennis — seemingly headed for a dark future once its current legends fade away near 2020 — received its best “hope for the future” moment of 2014, a moment whose meaning will only be known four to six years from now.
There are two core lessons to take from this tournament-changing result, which now makes Milos Raonic a favorite to reach his first major semifinal, making history for his own self but also for Canada, a tennis nation that is eclipsing the United States at the majors this year.
The first lesson is that tennis remains a dialogue. Golf is a solo-athlete sport, but the test is between player and course, not between any two men or women. Tennis is truly a two-person theater of drama. Players either try to establish their game and force the opponent to adjust to it, or they try to take away what their opponent is doing. There are many ways to win a tennis match. The fundamental formula is invariably a mixture of one’s own shotmaking prowess and the ability to — through hard work and court coverage — make the opponent miss. Nadal is the paragon of the player who takes away an opponent’s strengths and tries to wear out his foes through his unparalleled resilience and coping skills in moments of pressure and crisis. He has defused countless numbers of big hitters over the years, and Kyrgios was supposed to be his latest victim.
Yet, Kyrgios — whenever he encountered moments of trouble on Tuesday — answered the call with only one exception. At 5-6 in the second set, Kyrgios missed a few easy shots. At 30-all in that 12th game of the second set, he didn’t hit to the open court and lost the point. After saving one break (and set) point, Kyrgios watched Nadal block back a booming first serve, landing his return on the baseline. Kyrgios — getting a first-hand look at what Nadal has done to Federer and Djokovic so many times over the years — misfired in reply, and any hope of a two-set lead evaporated. Kyrgios had played two full-length sets, and all he had to show for it was a tie on the scoreboard and a lousy T-shirt.
Klizan split the first two sets in round one against Nadal. He faded.
Rosol split the first two sets against Nadal in round two. He faded.
They almost all fade away against Nadal’s court presence, which is the byproduct of his mental game, which is the byproduct of the work he puts into the sport, which is a byproduct of his fundamental attitude, which is a byproduct of Toni Nadal’s teaching.
Here was Nick Kyrgios, laboring in a warm (but not overwhelmingly hot) summer sun against tennis’s best laborer, having to serve and serve and serve again in order to keep a best-of-five match competitive. Would his arm fall off, and would his mind tire the way so many of Nadal’s opponents mentally concede deep into a third set?
It seemed that the moment of capitulation was at hand in set three, as Kyrgios encountered yet another 5-6, love-30 situation.
His response? He shook down the thunder with the unreturned serves and devastating forehands to the corners of the court that had given him a chance to play this match on even terms in the first place. In a number of situations when he seemed to be losing energy and on the precipice of giving way, this teenager not only won points; he won them the way in which he needed to win them.
It is one of the underappreciated truths of sports: Excelling is certainly valuable in itself, but excelling the way you need to excel is the supreme gateway to victory. When a basketball team can win with dunks as opposed to three-pointers, it is excelling in a way that demoralizes its opponent. When a soccer team can score by passing the ball into gaps in the middle third of the field, it establishes a more overwhelming form of control over the run of play and the pitch itself. Similarly, when a tennis underdog faces an opponent who revels in the long rally and has built a career on outworking the opposition, it’s essential to not merely win key points over the course of a match; it’s important to win them with as few strokes and complications as possible. Kyrgios was continuously able to do this, and it’s the true key to his astonishing upset.
Nadal directly said after the match that whenever he got a love-30 look on Kyrgios’ serve, the Australian delivered an unreturnable serve. Kyrgios — so close to falling behind two sets to one — held for a third-set tiebreaker. He then won a layered 4-3 point in the breaker to sustain momentum; and then hit an unreturnable serve on set point at 6-5, the exact kind of pressure situation which separates men from boys in tennis. Kyrgios won the match in four sets, but he truly crossed the threshold from doubt to full belief in that sequence at the end of set three.
This leads us to the second basic lesson of Kyrgios-Nadal on Tuesday:
Even though the grass of Wimbledon is slower than it was in the 1980s, grass is still the surface on which you can win a gun battle. What does that mean? For all the ways in which today’s grass isn’t yesterday’s grass, the ball still does skid a little lower on the blades. It is not as easy for a player like Nadal to establish and then maintain topspin on rally shots. Kyrgios was continuously able to hit a flat, angled crosscourt backhand that kept Nadal off balance, gaining leverage sooner rather than later on dozens of points that, in Nadal’s clay-court comfort zone, wouldn’t do nearly as much damage.
Kyrgios possesses the hammer of a serve and power drill of a forehand, but his backhand and his return of serve also announced their presence in this match. They sent a message to Rafa, a message which said that there were not going to be many weaknesses in the Australian’s game. The weight of shot belonged with Kyrgios from the start, and on grass, it’s much more possible to maintain a superior weight of shot through four or five sets than it is on clay, where Nadal retrieves dozens of extra balls and turns a match in his direction.
This match does nothing to dim Nadal’s greatness or take away from anything he’s achieved in tennis. One important fact to note is that Nadal’s serve was broken only one time in this match. He wasn’t at his very best on Tuesday, but he certainly didn’t play poorly — he did force Kyrgios to continue to respond to several difficult cauldrons, several invitations to go gently into a summer evening.Yet, he lost. That is a grass-court reality, a scenario you’ll see far more often in lawn tennis than in clay or hardcourt competition. If you can blast a serve and pound your groundstrokes to the corners in lightning-quick exchanges, you can win matches on grass against the best defenders. That’s how grass — slower though it might be in comparison with 30 years ago — remains the “gun battle” surface in this sport.
Nick Kyrgios owned the shots. When his mind refused to crumble in multiple moments that were saturated with tension, he was able to turn the question, “Will he hang tough?”, into a different and far more exciting question: “How much can Nick Kyrgios achieve in tennis when all is said and done?”
We’ll see how much Nick Kyrgios’s name is chanted over the course of the next decade. In the meantime, a performance as great as Tuesday’s against Rafael Nadal on Centre Court Wimbledon certainly rates as reason enough to chant his name in the here and now.
Mercy, that was something special.