Kyrgios, conversely, is a rocket rather than rock. We don’t know what will happen, and – on what we’ve seen – it’s conceivable that he doesn’t know what he’ll do either.
“With Rafa you see exactly what he puts out there,” explained Roger Rasheed, the noted Australian coach (once of Lleyton Hewitt), who also knows Kyrgios and Nadal from a recent stint on the ATP board. “If you go to his practice sessions, you’ll see every ball has an amazing value to it…He treats every ball like it’s his biggest moment. Then he replicates that on the tennis court.”
Kyrgios was what Rasheed called “a disrupter” in many forms. “There’s a positive attached to that as well because people don’t like it and he’s got the weapons to be disruptive as well.
“He’s done that to Rafa a lot of times and there’s no reason he wouldn’t do that again.”
Nadal is unwavering in his focus, cyborg-like to opponents. Kyrgios is freewheeling and matches swing in accordance with his mood. On Saturday night, he became distracted in the fourth set – and had a moment of anger with the chair umpire – because he wanted to avoid handing a bloodied towel to the ball kid.
Nadal plays an essentially defensive brand, counter punching from the backcourt. Kyrgios is an aggressor, who chances his wrist from everywhere. The audience, as the TV ratings suggest, are in thrall to his eccentric Kyrgiosities.
Nadal plays the percentages, knowing they are in his favour. Kyrgios – often likened to a circus – plays like a trapeeze artist without a net.
As Rasheed observed, there’s hardly another player on tour, who at 7-8 in the fifth set tiebreak, would attempt that almost reckless backhand down the line that turned the superbreaker. “I’m struggling to think any other player would think they could pull that off, or even want to it at that time – they’d be going safety cross court.”
Nadal – as Kyrgios’ mockery highlighted on Thursday night (v Gilles Simon) – takes an inordinate time between serves. Kyrgios takes an average of 16.4 seconds, one of the least on tour.
Nadal’s game is labor-intensive, involving longer rallies. Kyrgios wins by shortening points with an abrupt swing. Nadal expends enormous energy in every shot (6.46 kilojoules last round), Kyrgios has a low-emission style (5.36kj), albeit the sheer time on court meant he more than doubled Rafa’s energy oultlay in his epic last match than Nadal did against Pablo Carreno Busta; it is a measure of Nadal’s greater athleticism and full bore effort that, despite a much less taxing run in his three matches, he’s still had 280 “high-intensity” changes of direction compared to Kyrgios’ 206.
Nadal is a lefty, Kyrgios right-handed. The Aussie likes to stand well inside the court when returning, Nadal famously stands back beyond the baseline (though he’s moved forward lately). Nadal hits with vicious top spin. Kyrgios hits it hard and flat – and there’s little spin in his media comments, either.
Nadal is, as Rasheed put it, a “diplomat” – he seeks out tournament officials in Melbourne to shake their hands when he’s out of the event. “He respects every part of the game.” Kyrgios, well, he doesn’t always diss others – and can be generous to opponents – but he’s certainly a rebel, with or without a cause.
Kyrgios found a cause in the bushfires, and has put to rest any suggestion that he doesn’t care for others. The question, pondered regularly by Australian tennis insiders, is how much he cares to win, whether he’s willing to put it on the line – risk investing maximum effort, even if it means coming up short.
Contrasts in temperament and style are the lifeblood of tennis (see McEnroe v Borg, Sampras v Agassi), and if Kyrgios v Nadal lacks the gravitas of Federer v Nadal, it has the added, unusual spice of conflict: this pair don’t get on, though Kyrgios says there’s respect. “If we don’t like each other or whatever, I think there’s a layer of respect.”
Kyrgios is 3-4 v Nadal, having won (2014) and lost to Rafa at Wimbledon. Can he do it this time? Rasheed says he can, with the proviso that he adjusts to the more staid atmosphere of Rod Laver Arena, rather than the raucous Melbourne Arena, where a wall of sound has accompanied the Kyrgios show.
“There’s no reason why he doesn’t win. It’s whether he can play that type of tennis on Rod Laver Arena, because that other arena (Melbourne) is an excitement machine, it’s rock and roll.”
And if he rolls Rafa, Rod Laver Arena – no matter how staid and polite – will rock.
A bitter rivalry
2014 – WIMBLEDON, GRASS, R16, KYRGIOS 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3
With 37 aces, a teenage Kyrgios brought the zing to bring down Nadal in a stunning arrival on the international stage. Ranked 144th, Kyrgios was the firstman outside the top 100 to beat a world No. 1 at a grand slam since 1992, prompting John McEnroe to proclaim: ‘‘I think we have found the next guy in the men’s game.’’
2016 ROME MASTERS, CLAY, R32, NADAL 6-7 (3-7), 6-2, 6-4
Now the youngest player in the top 20 and tipped by Nadal pre-match as a future grand slam champion, Kyrgios had the great Spaniard on guard – and for good reason, with the Australian upstart storming the net to snatch the first set in a tiebreaker to prove he was no mug on clay either. But staring down the barrel of a rare defeat on dirt, the King of Clay raised his game.
2019 ACAPULCO, HARD COURT, R16, KYRGIOS 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (8-6)
Kyrgios overcame a back injury, nausea and two medical timeouts then saved three match points from 6-3 down in the deciding tie-breaker to inflict a third defeat on the mighty Spaniard. Infuriated by Kyrgios’s under-arm serve, Nadal accused his rival of being unsporting in a bitter aftermath. ‘‘He’s a player who has enormous talent … but he lacks respect for the crowd, the rival and towards himself.’’ It was water off a duck’s back for Kyrgios, who hit back with: ‘‘He can focus on what he needs to do … I’m not going to listen at all. That’s the way I play.’’
2019 WIMBLEDON, R64, NADAL 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3)
Kyrgios set the stage for another showdown after branding Nadal ‘‘super salty’’ and his coach, uncle Toni, ‘‘an idiot’’ in a podcast before the match. Kyrgios dropped the first set before bursting to life with scintillating tennis. Nadal had to pull out all stops in two tiebreakers to avoid a second centre-court loss.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.