Bring the popcorn: the two foes face off again at Wimbledon on Thursday (Pictures: AP)When the Wimbledon draw was first made, there was one potential first-week clash that stood out more than any other: Rafael Nadal against Nick Kyrgios. Both duly won their opening matches – against Yuichi Sugita and Jordan Thompson respectively – and will now face off on Thursday.
Beyond Kyrgios’ incredibly absorbing style and capacity for beating the top players, the clash has another layer of intrigue after a string of spats between the pair this year. But how far back do the roots of their animosity go and why have things turned sour so quickly?…
A Centre Court upset
Kyrgios was just 19 years old when he stunned Nadal at Wimbledon (Picture: Getty)The hot-headed Aussie first announced himself on this stage as a teenager by beating Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon back in 2014. On his Centre Court debut, wildcard entry Kyrgios became the first man outside the top 100 to beat a world No.1 at a Grand Slam in 22 years.
Weirdly, Kyrgios credited his mother for inspiring his victory – but not in the way you might expect. ‘I saw an interview with her saying Nadal was too good, so that made me angry and that helped.’ Asked what he’d say to her after getting the win, he added: ‘I will just text her a smiley face.’
The defeat to Kyrgios came in the middle of a run of dreadful results for Nadal at Wimbledon, having lost to Steve Darcis and Lukas Rosol in the years before, and Dustin Brown the year after, but none were ranked lower than No.144 Kyrgios – this one really hurt.
Nadal hits back at on clay
Kyrgios admitted afterwards he felt Nadal would ‘absolutely destroy’ him on clay (Picture: Getty)It was two years before the pair faced off again at the Rome Masters and the Spaniard got revenge on his favourite surface – though it was a serious struggle, lasting two hours and 43 minutes, and yet again he lost a tiebreak to the Aussie. In fact, of the 16 sets they have played against each other, five have gone to tiebreaks – and Kyrgios has won them all.
At this point, there was still a level of respect between the two, with Nadal backing the youngster to win Slams in the future: ‘Nick is an amazing player, so difficult to play against, and he has all the shots. Great forehand, great serve and a great backhand, so he’s one of the toughest opponents you can have in the third round.’
Kyrgios put up rather less resistance in Madrid soon after, with Nadal winning in straight sets in just 72 minutes, with the younger man bizarrely singing to Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ during changeovers. ‘I think it’s not normal to win against an opponent like this because Nick is a really good opponent,’ said the Spaniard afterwards.
Trading blows on hard court
Kyrgios and Nadal have played each other six times, winning three apiece (Picture: Getty)Since Madrid, the rest of Kyrgios and Nadal’s face-offs have come on hard courts: in Cincinnati and Beijing in 2017, and, more notably, in Acapulco earlier this year. Kyrgios’ win in the States came after having already beaten Ivo Karlovic earlier in the day, and the Aussie – who even pulled out a tweener – admitted that he found it easier to motivate himself to take on the big guns.
‘You see me tank ridiculous amounts of matches like on back courts and stuff like that, but then you never see me do anything silly in a match like this,’ he explained. ‘It’s easier to get up for these matches. As a little kid, playing on the Centre Court of Cincinnati against Nadal, that’s where the best has to come out.’
Soon after, they faced off in their first final in China, with Nadal overpowering his opponent and only dropping three games. This was the first time there was any hint of controversy in one of their matches – an incorrect out call denying Kyrgios a break in the opening game – and the Aussie struggled to get back his composure as his first serve completely went missing.
Still, given his run-ins with the likes of Stan Wawrinka – saying, ‘Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that’ at a change of ends in Montreal – Kyrgios’ relationship with Nadal seemed fairly cordial. But then Mexico happened…
Kyrgios silences the crowd after defeating Nadal in Mexico in February (Picture: Getty)After losing the first set in Acapulco in February and complaining of being ill, Kyrgios got a second wind, saving three match points before going on to beat Nadal – and he won the title a few days later. He also threw in a couple of underarm serves which seemed to particularly irk the Spaniard, and their handshake at the net afterwards was frosty to say the least.
‘He could win Grand Slams and fight the top positions of the ranking, but there is a reason why he is where he is,’ said Nadal of the world No.43 afterwards. ‘I don’t think he’s a bad guy, not at all. I think he’s a good guy, but what he lacks is a little respect for the public, for his rival, and also for himself. I think he should improve that.’
Kyrgios hits back as Uncle Toni wades in
Both Rafa and his uncle, Toni, were less than complimentary about Kyrgios (Picture: Getty)The 24-year-old did not react well to Nadal’s comments, saying: ‘He doesn’t know me so I’m not going to listen at all. That’s the way I play. The way he plays, he’s very slow between points.’ The Spaniard’s former coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, also got involved, and things really kicked off when Kyrgios was asked about the pair on the No Challenges Remaining podcast.
‘This is dangerous,’ Kyrgios said laughing. ‘He’s my polar opposite… and he’s super salty. When he wins it’s fine, he will credit the opponent but as soon as I beat him he has no respect for me, my fans or the game… and I’m like “what are you talking about?!”
‘It’s not a good look. And then Uncle Toni comes out and says “he [Kyrgios] lacks education”. Bro, I did 12 years at school you idiot – I’m very educated. I understand you’re upset that I beat your family… We do things very differently.’
Fast-forward to Wimbledon and now they face off for the seventh time, their respective comments still ringing in each other’s ears. Nadal claims he’s ‘too old’ to get in a fight with any of his fellow pros, while a fiery Kyrgios told reporters he wouldn’t be ‘going for a beer’ with Nadal anytime soon. Make no mistake, their second-round tussle promises to be even more entertaining than normal – on the court and off it.