September 30, 2022

WIMBLEDON, England — Competing against the tennis talents of Nick Kyrgios, the mighty Australian with the soft hands of a masseuse, is very difficult in itself.

This is only the beginning, however. Kyrgios, practicing psychological warfare, can be even more formidable.

The sport’s outspoken and charismatic bad boy, whose antics stole the show at Wimbledon, casts a spell over the vast crowds that fill stadiums to watch his matches, even on Wimbledon’s Center Court, that supposed temple of decorum.

Clever mid-range, between-the-leg shots, twist and curl winners, and anti-social theatrics force opponents to battle Kyrgios and thousands of spectators in search of another episode of the show’s most unpredictable and most captivating of tennis.

“Come on, Nick! they yell like he’s a mate playing darts in the pub.

His regular battles with the officials erupt without warning and can reappear throughout the game. He knows how loved and hated he is, and when a Grand Slam becomes a soap opera starring him, like this, his game is exactly where he wants it to be.

“I’m sitting here again in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, and I just know there are so many people who are so upset,” he said after beating American Brandon Nakashima in five sets on Monday. , 4-6, 6-4, 7 -6(2), 3-6, 6-2. “It’s a good feeling.”

Kyrgios has fought his own psychological battles through the extreme ups and downs of his erratic career. A few years ago his agent had to drag him out of a pub at 4am because he had a game against Rafael Nadal later that day. He knows as well as anyone that tennis is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one, perhaps more so. He shakes his opponent’s concentration, doing everything he can to force the guy across the net to start thinking about the drama rather than his game.

Here are the facts of Kyrgios’ fourth-round match against Nakashima, a rising and level-headed 20-year-old American, which happened two days after Kyrgios’ anger at Stefanos Tsitsipas was a screaming circus of matches with officials who have so much pissed off fourth-seeded Greece star Tsitsipas that he started trying to hit Kyrgios with his shots – and usually missed.

Midway through the first set against Nakashima, Kyrgios appeared to injure his right arm and shoulder trying to muscle in a forehand return from Nakashima’s serve. In the final stages of the set, Kyrgios, whose cannon-shaped serve is one of his most powerful weapons, was grabbing and massaging the area around his right triceps muscle during substitutions and between points.

He winced after a few serves and forehands and twisted his arm a few times, as if trying to stretch the joint and the muscles around it.

Unable to swing free and unable to unleash that nearly 140mph serve like he did in his first three games, Kyrgios stopped running and reaching for balls. In the tenth game, Nakashima, playing with his characteristic efficiency, repeatedly jumped on Kyrgios’ diminished serve to win the first set, 6-4. The young American looked like he was on cruise control.

The referee and a tournament official asked Kyrgios if he was okay and if he needed medical attention. He waved them off, but as the second set started, there was more shoulder rubbing, more grimacing, more arm spinning. Kyrgios’ forehand has become a wrist whip instead of the windmill that knocks opponents back.

Sometimes there is nothing more difficult than playing against an injured opponent. The players tell themselves not to change anything, to play as if everything were normal. But the mind may instinctively relax, suggesting not to hit that next forehand so close to the line or so hard because it might not be necessary against a weakened opponent.

On Monday afternoon, Nakashima couldn’t ignore Kyrgios’ grimaces and shoulder grabs or his much slower-than-usual walks from one side of the pitch to the other for the next point.

The more Kyrgios rubbed that shoulder, the more hesitant Nakashima became. He missed seven of the first eight serves in the third game of the second set, then missed a forehand on the breaking point, and suddenly Kyrgios had the momentum.

And then the numbers on the board showing the speed of Kyrgios’ serve started to climb, from 110 to 120 in miles per hour and from there. And the cursed forehands started to reappear. Serving in a tight moment late in the set, Kyrgios hit 137 and 132 on the radar gun. A few minutes later, he was equal.

Nakashima calmed down early in the third set. On serve, halfway through, Kyrgios called the physio and a medical timeout. As Kyrgios received a massage, Nakashima got up from his chair and performed shadow exercises facing the bleachers instead of Kyrgios.

Back on the court, Kyrgios again served well above 120 mph. He stretched his advantage in a tiebreaker with a 129mph ace, then won it by missing a forehand return.

“He was still serving well after the medical time-out, still tearing the ball up, so I don’t think it was such a big injury,” said Nakashima, who had no answer for Kyrgios’ serve or forehand during the match. third set tiebreaker.

That shoulder drama – Kyrgios later described it as one of his “troubles” which he treated with painkillers – ended there.

Another game, another mind game. Kyrgios, serving at 3-5, could have won the match and had Nakashima serve the set so Kyrgios could serve first in the deciding act.

Not really. How about three serves in the 75 mph range, an underhand and a forehand on the set point so obviously headed off the court? (He hit his target.) Was Kyrgios giving up now?

“Complete drug rope tactic,” Kyrgios said. “I just threw that service game away. I knew he was in a rhythm. He was starting to climb on top of me. I just wanted to throw it away a bit.

It worked, judging by the aces and the running volley he neatly shaved off the grass in his first service game.

There were challenges on calls he thought were fake, and a few on his snaps that clearly came out. Nakashima serving at two at 1-1 allowed Kyrgios to start chewing on the chair umpire. Then he stabbed a backhand for a break point and landed a backspin squash shot to mislead for a serve break.

And it was mostly curtains from there. A 134mph serve put Kyrgios leveling the point at 5-2. A surprise serve and volley on the second serve on match point sealed it.

Cristian Garin of Chile, ranked 43rd in the world, is next in the quarterfinals. The show goes on, and maybe on and on.