MELBOURNE, January 26, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
It’s cool to care about Nick Kyrgios. Finally. The top-ranked Australian man in this year’s Australian Open survived a dramatic five-set thriller Saturday night that would have made any Hollywood director proud.
The 24-year-old Kyrgios, a native from bushfire-raged Canberra, beat the talented and hard-hitting sixteenth seed Karen Khachanov of Russia, 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (10-8) after four hours and 26 minutes Saturday night. It was arguably the most important match of his career.
After securing match point, Kyrgios collapsed on the Melbourne Arena hard court surface and allowed himself to soak in the applause that was richly deserved. After all, he had just put on a shot clinic that resulted in him hitting 33 aces plus he hit dozens of winners with a variety of shots from all angles, including top-spin forehands and flat backhands. He added plenty excitement to even the most routine points. Of course, is there ever anything routine about a Kyrgios match?
It was the second straight night the Australian Open had finished its order of play with a five-set men’s match that captivated not only the raucous live audience attending Melbourne Park but also a world-wide audience tuned into via their television sets and smartphones across all time zones. Just a night earlier in Rod Laver Arena, Roger Federer fought off Australia’s John Millman in five sets to remain alive in the hunt for his seventh Australian Open title. Both matches finished with a 10-point match tie-break that rewards a survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
“That’s definitely one of the best matches of my career, I think,” said an exhausted Kyrgios after he beat Khachanov in five grueling but exciting sets.
An hour and 53 minutes came and went between Kyrgios’ first match-point opportunity and when he finally won the match in the gut-check match tie-break. In between, Kyrgios had his chances in both the third and fourth-set tie-breaks, but could not reach the finish line. In the meantime, Khachanov began playing pretty incredible tennis, too.
“He answered all the questions we have about him in one match,” said Matt Roberts, co-host of The Tennis Podcast, early Sunday morning, looking back at the mercurial Aussie’s comeback victory over Khachanov that concluded the men’s third round.
During the first week of the tournament, Khachanov played four sets in his first-round match and five sets in his next match. Then, he fell behind two sets-to-none against Kyrgios. But the Russian didn’t quit. Instead, Khachanov came alive and survived. Some how, by the end, Kyrgios was just a shot or two – and a bit of luck – better than Khachanov. Kyrgios was ahead on points, 191-185 at the conclusion.
“The mental achievement was absolutely immense. What a mountain he’s climbed tonight,” said David Law, who provided live radio commentary on the Kyrgios-Khachanov battle back to Great Britain on BBC Five Live, in describing Kyrgios. “I haven’t seen two players play their best at the same time for a prolonged period in the same match for a long time.”
When Kyrgios was asked to sum up his feelings, he said: “That was definitely one of the craziest matches I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “It was insane. Had a match point in the third, a match point in the fourth. Then 8-7 down, I had all the thoughts. I thought I was going to lose. I was thinking about everything. … It was crazy.”
Now, Kyrgios will play Nadal on Monday evening in Rod Laver Arena. where he will try to level their head-to-head in their eighth meeting. Kyrgios likes his chances against the top seed and World No. 1.
Don’t bet against Kyrgios – yet. The Kyrgioptimists on The Tennis Podcast surely aren’t. He’s been playing crackling tennis through the first week, crafting three wins against the likes of No. 53 Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, No. 61 Gilles Simon from France and No. 17 Khachanov over the course of 12 exciting sets of tennis.
“I’m super excited, honestly,” said Kyrgios, who has kept his temperament under control through the first week of the Australian Open. “Playing one of the greatest tennis players on Centre court at your own Slam, it’s pretty cool. … Obviously, it’s going to be another physical battle. Nothing comes easy with him.
“(Rafa) had a relatively routine match today, so he’s going to be feeling good.”
Indeed, Nadal advanced with a straight-set victory over fellow Spaniard 27th-seed Pablo Carreño Busta during the day session, several hours before Kyrgios took the court to play Khachanov. Round by round, Nadal has pushed forward in anticipation of a second Australian Open title and 20th Grand Slam singles crown, which would tie him with Federer.
For now, Kyrgios – exhausted but happy – said he looked forward to a day of rest. But rest assured, he’ll be ready for Rafa on Monday. “Yeah, I feel good. Like I feel my game is ready to go.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Kyrgios. “That’s why you play.”
Swiatek last teen standing in women’s draw
Polish No. 2 Iga Swiatek, just 18, is the only teenager remaining in the women’s singles draw following Sunday’s loss by 15-year-old Coco Gauff of the United States. On Saturday, Swiatek served six aces, hit 29 winners and lost her serve only once against No. 19 seed Donna Vekic of Croatia en route to advancing to the fourth round with a 7-5, 6-3 victory.
“It was my toughest match so far,” said Swiatek, quoted by the WTA Tour website. “Playing against such an experienced player is always hard. I wasn’t that confident before the match. I was really tired after the first two matches. So, it was hard from every point of view. I was just trying to play one more ball.”
Swiatek has reached the fourth round in a Grand Slam for the second time following her 2019 showing at Roland Garros. Her season ended abruptly following the US Open when she suffered an injury that required foot surgery. The Australian Open is her first tournament back since then.
“I wasn’t so confident in my first year on the tour,” Swiatek said over the weekend. “But now I feel I belong and have everything I need to play against the best players.”
Around Melbourne Park
Lost in the shuffle of all the excitement over the weekend created by the upsets happening the singles draw, a big upset took place Sunday in mixed doubles. Two-time US Open champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Jamie Murray from Great Britain scored a first-round upset as they came from a set down to defeat the No. 1 seeds Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic and Marcelo Melo of Brazil, 3-6, 6-4, 10-7 in one hour and 32 minutes.
In the second round, Mattek-Sands and Murray will take on first-time duo Jelena Ostapenko, 22, of Latvia and 46-year-old Leander Paes of India.
First week attendance record shattered
The first week of the 2020 Australian Open drew a record number of visitors to Melbourne Park. With 72,310 attending Middle Sunday, including 53,730 for the day session and 18,480 coming out to the night session (which featured World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer playing in Rod Laver Arena) – both Middle Sunday session records – a total of 550,645 came through the turnstiles to witness the first Grand Slam of 2020 and of the decade in Melbourne.
The previous first week tournament record was set in 2019 with 537,226 spectators.