Just when you think you know someone, that’s when they go and let you down. On a balmy afternoon in front of a fond, even – whisper it – quietly adoring Centre Court crowd, Nick Kyrgios confirmed his own mercurial nature, his basic inconsistency by remaining controlled, rigidly polite and an all-round model pro and steady guy throughout this fourth-round win against Brandon Nakashima.
In victory Kyrgios was gushingly courteous towards his 20-year-old opponent. He paid tribute to his girlfriend (“the best girlfriend in the world”), referenced his many friends in tennis and namechecked his many excellent conversations with “Andy”. He even deflected a question about the potentially rule-skirting Air Jordans he had worn to walk on court with a wink and the words, “You keep doing you champion”.
And at times watching this it was hard to know what exactly a drama-hungry global media 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 loosen up a little? In the event Kyrgios won this slow-burn five-set match with something to spare, running up a 5-1 lead as he raised his levels in the final set. He will now face Cristian Garín in the quarters.
There were still some difficult moments as the impressive Nakashima won the first and fourth sets. At times Kyrgios rubbed his upper arm. He sliced down some 77mph serves as though in discomfort. At one point his hat turned blue: not as it turns out another flagrant provocation, but the result of some dye coming out of his racket handle. Blue-hatted tennis bully unrepentant. Cap maniac flouts rules. No. No it just won’t stretch.
Instead this was something else, an unexpectedly solid, controlled, low-key kind of win. By the end Kyrgios was drawing coos and gurgles as he ran up through the higher registers, reeling off no-feet flick shots, bravura whipped forehand drives, then ending the match with a cup of the ear to the crowd as if to say: are you not (quietly and politely) entertained?
There is, of course, a great deal more satisfaction to be drawn from watching Good Nick. For the tennis cognoscenti, the tennis-badger set, the excitement around Kyrgios can be a source of annoyance. Kyrgios, they say, is a tennis genius for people who know nothing about tennis. This is show, theatre, easy access histrionics. On Monday morning Kyrgios was even being lauded on national radio as “a master of mind games”, an excellent case of completely missing the point.
Masters of mind games tend to win things. Rafael Nadal, for example, who wins slams while people talk about how nice he is. That’s mastery. Kyrgios is No 40 in the world, mainly because he has to play with Kyrgios on the court every game, to deal with that circus every time, because it’s his circus.
Instead the story with Kyrgios is talent and how to find its edges, how to make it work in the brightest of lights. Even this fourth-round tie had looked awkward from a certain angle. Nakashima is still only 20, has never won a title, has never been above No 54 in the world. Kyrgios really, really should be winning this.
And Centre Court was packed. Even the royal box was packed – Kyrgios isn’t just box office; he’s Royal Box Office, with a genuine sense of event glamour around the place as Kyrgios and Nakashima appeared.
At times Kyrgios did seem to be in standby mode in that first set. There were second-serve aces and flipped forehands two feet over the baseline. The first underarm serve came out after 10 minutes. And for a while both men barrelled along in a series of two- and three‑minute games, Kyrgios reeling off his serves like a man shotgunning a can of Pringles.
He is such a loose, hunched kind of figure with a cool guy walk, a man who is in his own mind, even mid-rally, always Judd Nelson in the Breakfast Club. But here he met an opponent who never let his levels drop, and who took his chance at 4-5 as Kyrgios suddenly fell apart, playing French cricket, whomping his forehands long and finding himself chasing the match.
In these moments Kyrgios does drift. His footwork goes, his shots lose power. Tennis is about endless repetition, endless will, the appetite for doing the same thing again and again, with the same level of intensity. The matches are long. Does Kyrgios really have that basic level of obsession? Does he believe it? The best part of his game here was the way he picked it up when it mattered. The third set was won via a supremely competent tie-break.
Nakashima took the fourth. But Kyrgios came storming back, moving to 4-1 with a forehand drive that scorched a hole in the crust of the earth (his shoulder seemed fine by this point) and turning and roaring to his box for the first time.
There was even a brief glimpse of the old edge afterwards as Kyrgios was asked to sum up his own progress. “I’m here in a Wimbledon quarter-final,” he said, offering a full-wattage smile. “And I just know there are so many people who are so upset. That’s a good feeling.”