LONDON -- By the middle of the fourth set of Thursday's second-round match at Wimbledon evening, the ending seemed inevitable. Nick Kyrgios was clinging to his serve, the last thing he had left, like a shipwrecked sailor clutching a life preserver. Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal lashed and pounded him, unrelenting as an angry sea.
It seemed only a matter of time before the 24-year-old Australian would be dislodged and pulled under -- and out of the draw. But things had not always played out as expected for Nadal on Wimbledon's lawns, where Kyrgios himself had already been the author of Nadal's demise once. That was in 2014 when, as a wild card ranked No. 144, he upset top-ranked Nadal. It was the tournament that vaulted Kyrgios to fame.
So even as Nadal led 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 (5), 4-all, it was not inconceivable that Kyrgios's massive serve would still save the day for him. But Nadal kept buffeting. He had Kyrgios folding up like a cheap jack-knife as he lunged to return Nadal's pinpoint serves, hobbling from one court to the other with his head bowed. Nadal ratcheted up the rallies and sustained a brutal degree of pressure until Kyrgios finally cracked in the final, fourth-set tiebreaker, which Nadal won 7-3.
"He plays every point," Kyrgios said when asked to describe what he admires most about Nadal. "He doesn't take one point off. I feel like we're the polar opposites. I struggle so hard to just play every point with a routine, have the same patterns. His ability to bring it every day and compete, it's special. It's not easy."
It isn't easy, nor is it always as rewarding as it was on this day for Nadal. This was a win he really needed, the kind of performance that blows the frustration out of a player's pipes. He had missed or been rendered ineffective at so many Wimbledon tournaments over the years due to injuries. He has encountered so many marauding grass-court specialists who bushwhacked him in early rounds, before he could properly get his feet under him.
Just last year, he had to play with the Centre Court roof closed in the evening on semifinal Friday and the following morning, in conditions thought by many to afford his opponent Novak Djokovic a slight edge. Djokovic won that epic by a slight edge, 10-8 in the fifth set. To start 2019, the tournament elevated Roger Federer over Nadal to the No. 2 seed. Unintended consequence No. 1: this much-anticipated match.
Kygrios may be ranked a lowly No. 43, and he keeps building on his reputation as the ultra-talented guy who just doesn't care enough to make the most of his potential. But he's kryptonite to Nadal, the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. Just this past February, the two had words following Kyrgios' win over Nadal in Acapulco. The bad blood created plenty of hype for this meeting, and it became an underlying theme of the match.
The subplot manifested when Kyrgios complained to the chair umpire about how Nadal insisted on playing at his own, slow pace -- even though the rules stipulate play at the server's pace. But the flashpoint sparked in the ninth game of the third set, when Kyrgios intentionally tried to hit Nadal with a screamer of a forehand that the 33-year-old Spaniard was barely able to ward off with his racket.
"I don't care, why would I apologize?" Kyrgios said. "I mean, the dude has got how many slams? How much money in the bank account? I think he can take a ball to the chest, bro."
He added, "I was going for him. Yeah, I wanted to hit him square in the chest."
Nadal's response: "When he hit the ball like this, [it] is dangerous. [It] is not dangerous for me, [it] is dangerous for a line referee, dangerous for a crowd. I know he's a big talented player, but I am a professional player, too. I know when you hit this kind of ball, the ball can go anywhere."
The truth, though, is the shot fired up Nadal. First, he fixed Kyrgios with a long, hard stare. Then he returned to the baseline to conduct his business. When he held that critical game to take a 5-4 lead, he whirled to face the team seated in his guest box and clenched his entire body with his arms at his side, roaring. Nadal spun to face the crowd and repeated that energized gesture.
If there was a turning point in this excruciatingly close match, that was it. When Nadal held on and swept through the tiebreaker, it was clear Kyrgios had grown fatigued. He became a slight step slower, his reactions a blink off. Those flat forehand blasts began missing by inches instead of raising chalk.
Kyrgios likes to flaunt his lack of professionalism. He brags about playing video games late into the night, jet-skiing on days when he has matches to play. He posts on social media from bars and pubs on working nights during tournaments. There's a price to pay, though: the physical deficit he began to show as the match went deep into a second hour. It's an analysis Kyrgios doesn't like to work through. He seems to fear failure, yet craves the accolades only major success brings.
"I know that I'm capable," he said. "I know that I can bring a level. I haven't put in enough hours. I probably haven't trained enough. I don't have a coach. I haven't been doing enough gym. I'm still going out there today and able to bring a level that can compete with one of the world's best and have chances to win the match."
That's not entirely accurate. He didn't have a chance to win the match. In fact, he never even led, and he tapped out by the early stages of the final set.
"At the end of the day," he said, "it's tennis, man. Is it really that important? I mean, [for] everyone here, obviously, yeah. For me, it's not so important."
A reporter asked Nadal what the result might be if Kyrgios brought to tennis a level of dedication comparable to his own.
"If, if, if doesn't exist," Nadal said. He paid tribute to Kyrgios's talent. He said the Aussie has a lot of "good ingredients."
He then added: "But, of course, [there] remains an important one sometimes, and that is the love, the passion for this game. Without really loving this game that much, is difficult to achieve important things."
Nadal has logged significant achievements, and thanks to this win he can continue on his quest to attain one more. This win was one he needed, and it was a gift from the least likely of sources: a nemesis.
"[It] is just a second-round match," the proud winner said before going on to explain why it was much more than that. "It's true that it has been a tough draw, maybe the one that you want to face less in a second round like this, especially here. It is an important victory for me. Victories like this help because I spent hours on court. I played under pressure. I had to do a lot of things well. I was able to find a way to be through."
This was a win Nadal needed, one he earned with that devastating 1-2 punch of his lefty serve and forehand, his self-control and nerve.
But in the end, that love and passion he mentioned had a little something to do with it, too.