Nick Kyrgios had played just six matches in 2019 before he clashed with Rafael Nadal on Wednesday evening in the Acapulco ATP 500. Kyrgios more than made up for lost time as he toppled the tournament’s top seed in an electric three-hour epic in signature Kyrgios fashion — with a welter of controversy.
The curious thing is that the actions many — including Nadal — saw as inflammatory or unsporting weren’t the kind of indefensible transgressions that have earned Kyrgios notoriety.
The controversial bits in Wednesday’s riveting match (Kyrgios dismissed three match points before he won 3-6, 7-6, 7-6) were an injury timeout between the first and second sets, the underarm “drop shot” serve he tried, and a complaint about the amount of time Nadal was taking between points — the latter two both in the third set.
Nadal smoldered after the match, telling reporters: “[Kyrgios] is a player who has enormous talent. He could win grand slams and fight the top positions of the ranking, but there is a reason why he is where he is (ATP ranking: No. 72). He lacks respect for the public, the rival and towards himself.”
Nadal, who rarely criticizes peers in public, was only giving voice to sentiments shared by many fans and tennis insiders. Kyrgios is an aggressive, impetuous 23-year-old who often lacks a filter. He has treated highly respected rivals with insolence, failed at times to give his best effort, and made disparaging remarks about his profession — all while continuing to reap the rewards of the lavish lifestyle it affords him. He belongs squarely in the anti-role-model tradition.
True, Kyrgios once again sucked up all the available oxygen in this match, which had to be irritating, at best, to Nadal. But Kyrgios’ most notable actions were tenable.
Nadal, urged on by the partisan crowd, won the first set with relative ease. Kyrgios then took an injury timeout, which is a commonplace feature of the game these days. Kyrgios told the trainer he felt “sick” and had lower-back pain. A hot microphone caught him saying he would quit but for the fact that doing so would lead the media to “blow it up.”
Kyrgios fought his way back into the match. Early in the third set, he tried an underarm second serve, ostensibly to take advantage of Nadal’s return position deep in his own court. The gambit produced a double fault — and a contentious debate on Twitter. Some consider the underarm serve unsporting, but it doesn’t violate any rules. Numerous players have tried it. Kyrgios defended the shot in a Facebook reply to a fan:
“I mean isn’t the idea to serve where the person can’t get the ball? Try to get an ace?” Kyrgios wrote, adding a gif of actor Hugh Laurie shrugging his shoulders.
The other big-ticket item was Kyrgios’ third-set complaint to the chair umpire about Nadal’s famously slow speed of play. The “King of Clay” likes to use up the full 25 seconds allotted by the ATP shot clock, but Kyrgios prefers a brisk pace when serving. However, the age-old rules of tennis stipulate that play proceeds at the pace of the server.
Most of Nadal’s opponents acquiesce to his pace, even when serving. Not Kyrgios.
“The way he plays is very slow in between points,” Kyrgios told reporters. “The rule in the book says he has to play to the speed of the server, but Rafa has his speed every time [receiving or serving], so I’m not going to comment on him.”
Fans and pundits can debate the nuances of the rules as well as Kyrgios’ actions, attitude and manners. But it’s pretty clear Kyrgios broke no rules in this match. He might, however, have driven spectators dangerously close to cardiac arrest with his dazzling shotmaking and that stirring comeback.
“It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever played in,” Kyrgios said afterward, despite having been showered with catcalls and boos at various times. “The majority of the crowd were going for Rafa. He’s going to get that wherever he goes. He’s an unbelievable player. One of the greatest of all time. So just to be able to be a part of that atmosphere … it was a match that I’ll never, ever forget.”
It’s unlikely Nadal will forget it, either. Especially when clay-court season rolls around.