September 25, 2022

JWhen you think you know someone, that’s when they let you down. On a balmy afternoon in front of a loving, even – whisper it – quietly adoring Center Court crowd, Nick Kyrgios confirmed his own mercurial nature, his fundamental inconsistency by remaining controlled, rigidly polite and a versatile role model and guy steady throughout that fourth-round win over Brandon Nakashima.

In the win, Kyrgios was gushingly courteous to his 20-year-old opponent. He paid tribute to his girlfriend (“the best girlfriend in the world”), referenced his many friends in tennis and named his many great conversations with “Andy”. He even deflected a question about the potentially rules-compliant Air Jordans he wore to walk the court with a wink and the words, “You keep making yourself champions.”

And sometimes, looking at that, it was hard to know exactly what a drama-hungry global media outlet was supposed to do with it? What’s the line here? Is Kyrgios killing tennis by being too bland and efficient? Does he need to relax a bit? In the event Kyrgios won this match in five slow-burning sets with something to spare, taking a 5-1 lead as he increased his levels in the final set. He will now face Cristian Garín in the quarters.

There were still some tough moments though as the impressive Nakashima won the first and fourth sets. Sometimes Kyrgios rubbed his upper arm. He cut around 77 mph serves like he was uncomfortable. At one point, his hat turned blue: not as it turns out another blatant provocation, but the result of some dye coming out of his racquet handle. Unrepentant blue hat tennis bully. Cap maniac flouts the rules. No. No, it does not stretch.

Instead, it was something else, a surprisingly solid, controlled, low-key sort of victory. By the end, Kyrgios was drawing coos and gurgles as he raced through the upper registers, reeling footless shots, bravery whipped forehands, then ending the match with an ear cup to the crowd as if to say: aren’t you (quietly and politely) entertained?

There is, of course, a lot more satisfaction to be had from watching Good Nick. For tennis connoisseurs, the tennis-badger combo, the excitement around Kyrgios can be a source of annoyance. Kyrgios, they say, is a tennis genius for people who know nothing about tennis. It’s entertainment, theater, easily accessible histrionics. On Monday morning, Kyrgios was even hailed on national radio as “a master of mind games”, an excellent case of complete failure.

Nick Kyrgios’ forehand is a powerful weapon against Brandon Nakashima. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Mind game masters tend to win things. Rafael Nadal, for example, who wins slams as people talk about his kindness. It is mastery. Kyrgios is world number 40, mainly because he has to play with Kyrgios on the pitch every game, to face this circus every time, because it’s his circus.

Instead, the story with Kyrgios is talent and how to find its limits, how to make it work under the brightest lights. Even that fourth-round tie had looked awkward from a certain angle. Nakashima is still only 20, has never won a title, has never topped 54th in the world. Kyrgios should really, really win this.

And center court was packed. Even the royal box was packed – Kyrgios isn’t just at the box office; he’s at the Royal Box Office, with a real sense of glamor from the events around the place as Kyrgios and Nakashima appeared.

At times, Kyrgios seemed to be in standby mode in this first set. There were second-serve aces and forehand returns two feet over the baseline. The first underarm serve came out after 10 minutes. And for a while, the two embarked on a series of two- and three-minute matches, Kyrgios reeling off his serves like a man pulling a can of Pringles.

He’s such a loose, bent character with a cool dude gait, a man who’s on his own mind, even halfway through, still Judd Nelson in the Breakfast Club. But here he met an opponent who never let his levels down and tried his luck at 4-5 as Kyrgios suddenly collapsed, playing French cricket, taking long forehands and finding himself running after the game.

In these moments, Kyrgios drifts. His footwork goes away, his shots lose power. Tennis is endless repetition, endless willpower, the appetite to do the same thing over and over again, with the same level of intensity. The games are long. Does Kyrgios really have this basic level of obsession? Does he believe it? The best part of his game here was how he picked it up when it mattered. The third set was won via an extremely competent tie-break.

Nakashima took fourth. But Kyrgios stormed back, making it 4-1 with a forehand that burned a hole in the earth’s crust (his shoulder looked fine at this point) and turned and roared to his box for the first time.

There was even a brief glimpse of the old edge afterwards as Kyrgios was asked to summarize his own progress. “I’m here in a Wimbledon quarter-final,” he said, offering a full-powered smile. “And I just know there are so many people who are so upset. It’s a good feeling.