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Nick Kyrgios Sets The Australian Open Tennis Alight


By Alix Ramsay

Love him or loathe him, tennis needs Nick Kyrgios. On Day Three of the Australian Open, a day of upsets (Petra Kvitova, Bianca Andreescu and Venus Williams all lost) and of big names struggling (Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic both dropped sets), the atmosphere was… well, it was all right. There were people, they were enjoying themselves and there was plenty to watch. But then Kyrgios walked out into the John Cain Arena and set the tournament alight.

For a little under three and a half hours, he kept his own, personal Barmy Army whipped up into a frenzy as he went through his entire repertoire to beat Ugo Humbert 5-7, 6-4,3-6, 7-6, 6-4. He pounded down aces, he racked up errors; he swore like a trooper, he applauded his opponent’s winners; he argued with the umpire, he put his head down and sprinted to the finish; he faced two match points, he ended up winning – this was Kyrgios at his best and his worst. And he spent much of the match one f-bomb away from a game penalty. A smashed racket at the end of the first set earned him his first warning while smacking the ball away in fury in the fourth set earned him a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. One more transgression would have cost him a game.

Nick Kyrgios of Australia celebrates after winning his second Round Men’s singles match against Ugo Humbert of France on Day 3 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 10 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

But Kyrgios loves that court. He has had some of his best Australian Open moments there – and some of his worst. Losing to Andreas Seppi from two sets up was the lowest point back in 2017 and saw him booed off court. Then again, beating Seppi from two sets down two years earlier had been a highlight. Wednesday night, though, was a moment he will remember for the rest of his life.

Tennis has been limping around the pandemic-stricken world for seven months now. Some events have allowed a sprinkling of fans to watch but most have been held in empty arenas with all the warmth and atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room. In Melbourne, up to 30,000 fans are allowed on site but, so far, the Melburnians have been wary. Wednesday saw the biggest turnout so far at just under 20,000 but the feeling around the place was nothing like the Australian Opens of old. And then Kyrgios and Humbert got to work.

For the first time since the tours restarted, this was a proper match in front of a proper audience. The crowd was loud, it was raucous and it was partisan – although, being an Aussie crowd, it was also appreciative of Humbert’s many talents. And Kyrgios loved every single member of that throng.

“I definitely enjoyed the crowd,” he said. “The crowd was awesome tonight. That court is so special. I have had so many good memories on it. The crowd was awesome. Half packed and it felt like it was a full stadium. I got goose bumps towards the end. I didn’t even know what to say. Yeah, I definitely enjoyed it.”

Fans show support for Nick Kyrgios of Australia during his second Round Men’s singles match against Ugo Humbert of France on Day 3 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 10 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

In the heat of this battle, Humbert did not flinch. With his reddish-brown, curly hair, his clear, pale skin and legs so thin they make a matchstick look butch, the 22-year-old Frenchman is not the archetypal elite athlete. He looks like he should be sitting in a Paris bar, sipping cognac and discussing Proust long into the night with his fellow intellectuals. But, zut alors, can he play.

It took everything Kyrgios had to survive and as he faced those two match points in the fourth set, he was actually scared. The thought of the hammering he would take from the Aussie press if he lost was almost too much to bear. But that is when experience counts.

“When I’m match point down, second-round exit, I was almost afraid,” he said. “I was afraid to come into [the interview room], you know, go to my Airbnb and just read about it and take it all in, take all the negativity in that I have already taken. It’s not easy to come back and try and put it all behind.

Nick Kyrgios of Australia in action during his second Round Men’s singles match against Ugo Humbert of France on Day 3 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 10 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

“That’s what I was thinking about. I was just, like, my back’s up against the wall and I just — I don’t know. I don’t know how I got out of it. Yeah, it was insane.

“I felt like I didn’t have anything against him. Like, in the fourth and fifth set, I mean, I thought he was playing better from the ground. I was maybe serving a little bit better. But the only thing I really had on him today was experience.

“I have been in so many big matches, and on that court in particular, two sets to love down, winning. You know, I’ve just been through so much on the court, I just felt like I was an old savvy veteran who had experience over him. He’s a young guy. I don’t think he’s been in too many five-set matches in Australia with that kind of crowd against him. And then I somehow got out of jail today. Honestly, it’s surreal, almost.”

Nick Kyrgios of Australia speaks to the chair umpire during his second Round Men’s singles match against Ugo Humbert of France on Day 3 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 10 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

What was also a little surreal was his long-running battle with the umpire, Marijana Veljovic, over the net cord monitor. Both players had issues with what the commentators referred to as “the trembler” (which sounds vaguely rude), and it did look like some perfectly good serves were being called as a let. But no matter what Kyrgios said – the gist of his argument was that it would be better to turn the damned thing off, or words to that effect – Veljovic was having none of it. In the end, Kyrgios managed to put “the trembler” behind him, engage the after-burners and claim his victory. His reward? A meeting with Dominic Thiem on Friday. But Kyrgios was planning to think about that later.

“He trains like an absolute animal,” he said of the world No.3. “He’s probably one of the most physical guys on tour. He’s an extremely good player. He’s consistent every day. And I actually have a lot of respect for him. I think his style of tennis is not easy to play. He’s super physical. But I’m not even thinking about it. Like, I’m just hurting thinking about playing him right now.”

Nick Kyrgios of Australia celebrates after winning his second Round Men’s singles match against Ugo Humbert of France on Day 3 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 10 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

That match is unlikely to be on Kyrgios’s favourite court but if he can take his Barmy Army with him to the Rod Laver Arena and push the US Open champion to the limit of Friday night, this year’s Open will take off. Tennis really does need Nick.