WIMBLEDON, England — Going up against the tennis talents of Nick Kyrgios, the powerful Australian with hands as soft as a masseuse’s, is plenty difficult in its own right.
That is just the beginning, though. Kyrgios, practitioner of psychological warfare, can be even more formidable.
The sport’s outspoken, charismatic bad boy, whose antics have stolen the Wimbledon spotlight, casts a spell on the vast crowds that pack stadiums to watch his matches, even on Center Court at Wimbledon, that supposed temple of decorum.
The mid-rally, between-the-legs trick shots, the twisting and curling winners and the antisocial theatrics force opponents to take on Kyrgios and thousands of spectators looking for another episode of the most unpredictable and compelling show in tennis.
“Come on, Nick!” They yelled as though he was a pal playing a game of darts at the pub.
His regular battles with officials erupt without warning and can reappear throughout the match. He knows how much he is loved and loathed, and when a Grand Slam tournament becomes a soap opera starring him, as this one has, his game is right where he wants it to be.
“I sit here now in the quarterfinals Wimbledon again, and I just know there’s so many people who are so upset,” he said after outlasting Brandon Nakashima of the United States on Monday in five sets, 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 highs and lows of his erratic career. A few years ago, his agent had to drag him from a pub at 4 am because he had a match against Rafael Nadal later that day. He knows as well as anyone that tennis is as much a mental fight as a physical one, maybe more so. He rattles his opponent’s concentration, doing whatever 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’s fourth-round match against Nakashima, a rising, levelheaded, 20-year-old American, which occurred two days after Kyrgios’ upset of Stefanos Tsitsipas that was a circus of screaming matches with officials that so unnerved Tsitsipas, the fourth-seeded Greek star, 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 upper arm and shoulder while trying to muscle a forehand return of Nakashima’s serve. By the latter stages of the set, Kyrgios, whose cannon-like serve is among his most potent weapons, was grabbing and massaging the area around his right triceps muscle on changeovers and between points.
He winced after some serves and forehands and repeatedly rotated his arm, as though trying to stretch out the joint and the muscles around it.
Unable to swing freely and unable to unleash that nearly 140 mph serve as he did in his first three matches, Kyrgios stopped chasing and reaching for balls. In the tenth game, Nakashima, playing with his trademark efficiency, jumped on the diminished Kyrgios’s serve repeatedly to take the first set, 6-4. The young American looked like he was on cruise control.
The umpire and a tournament official asked Kyrgios if he was OK and if he needed medical attention. He waved them both off, but as the second set began, there was more shoulder rubbing, more wincing, more arm rotation. Kyrgios’s forehand became a wristy whip instead of the windmill that sends opponents running backwards.
Sometimes there is nothing as difficult as playing against an injured opponent. Players tell themselves to change nothing, to play as if everything were normal. But the mind can instinctually relax, suggesting not to hit that next forehand so close to the line or so hard because maybe it’s not necessary against a weakened opponent.
On Monday afternoon, Nakashima could not ignore Kyrgios’s winces and shoulder grabs or his so-much-slower-than-usual walks from one side of the court to the other for the next point.
The more Kyrgios rubbed that shoulder, the more tentative Nakashima became. He missed seven of eight first serves in the third game of the second set, then missed a forehand on break point, and suddenly Kyrgios had the momentum.
And then the numbers on the board tracking the speed of Kyrgios’s serve began to climb, from the 110s into the 120s in miles per hour and upwards from there. And the blasted forehands started to reappear. Serving at a tight moment late in the set, Kyrgios hit 137 and 132 on the radar gun. Minutes later, he was all even.
Nakashima settled back down early in the third set. On serve, midway through, Kyrgios called for the physiotherapist and a medical timeout. As Kyrgios received a massage, Nakashima got up from his chair and performed shadow drills facing the stands instead of Kyrgios.
Back on the court, Kyrgios served once more well above 120 mph. He stretched his advantage in a tiebreaker with a 129 mph ace, then won it by rifling a forehand return.
“He was still serving fine after the medical timeout, still ripping the ball, so I don’t think it was that big of an injury,” said Nakashima, who had no answers for Kyrgios’s serve or forehand in the third-set tiebreaker.
That shoulder drama — Kyrgios later described it as one of his “niggles” that he had treated with some painkillers — ended there.
Another set, another mind game. Kyrgios, serving at 5-3, could have won the game and made Nakashima serve out of the set so Kyrgios could serve first in the deciding act.
Not so much. How about three serves in the 75-mph range, one underhanded, and a forehand on set point so obviously aimed off the court? (It hit its target.) Was Kyrgios now quitting?
“Complete rope-a-dope tactic,” Kyrgios said. “I just threw away that service game. I knew he was in a rhythm. He was starting to get on top of me. I kind of just wanted to throw him off a little bit.” It worked.
Not judging by the aces, or the running volley he perfectly shaved off the grass in his first service game.
There were challenges on calls he thought were wrong, and a few on shots of him that were clearly out. Nakashima serving at deuce at 1-1 made for a convenient time for Kyrgios to start jawing with the chair umpire. Then he stabbed a backhand for break point and pulled off a back-spinning squash shot to induce the error for a service break.
And it was largely curtains from there. A 134 mph serve got Kyrgios to match point at 5-2. A surprise serve-and-volley on second serve on match point sealed it.
Cristian Garin of Chile, ranked 43rd in the world, is up next in the quarterfinals. The show goes on, and maybe on and on.