Andy Murray goes through, Nick Kyrgios goes down – but their hugely anticipated encounter on the second evening of the 2015 US Open, won in four don’t-look-away sets by the Scot, was more than a tennis match. It was a public examination of a tender psyche (Kyrgios’s, by the way), an entity wholly separate from the rest of the sport.
This was like witnessing the flowering of a genius or the twitching of an extinct species, maybe both. Kyrgios, in the tradition of all rebels, not only seems to care little for the scoreboard, he plays tennis as if no such thing exists, and he had the perfect chess partner in Murray, who likes to move opponents around like pawns on a board.
For two hours and 43 minutes, Kyrgios muttered and spluttered, grinned and grimaced, surfing all possibilities while oblivious to the likelihood of wipeout. Murray, no prisoner of orthodoxy himself but way more seasoned, rode the wave with him. However, he had a sharper eye on the beach and came in a 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 winner, as most sensible judges had expected.
“The beginning of the fourth set was important, when I got the momentum back,” Murray told his former coach Brad Gilbert courtside. “I served pretty well, got a lot of free points. But I had to do a lot of running in tough conditions. He’s unpredictable and he can play all of the shots, serves extremely well, fantastic athlete. You’ve got to get him out of his strike zone. He made a couple of mistakes in the first game of the fourth set and I made him play as many balls as I could.”
Next up for Murray on Wednesday is the unseeded Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, whom he beat 6-3, 6-3 the only time they met, at Indian Wells this year, and who earlier beat the Russian qualifier Konstantin Kravchuk 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-1 on Court 9.
“It’ll be a tricky match,” Murray said in time-honoured fashion, “a very talented left-hander hits the ball very flat on both sides. But I grew up playing my brother who is left handed.”
Older brothers always have their uses.
Investors, meanwhile, will go broke betting against Kyrgios too often. When he matures, he will be as dangerous to others as he is now to himself.
A lot of very good players have played with disregard for the ethics and mores of what is essentially a stiff-shirted, middle-class pursuit: Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and Gael Monfils in recent times – all of them instinctive outsiders. Yet none but the latter, perhaps, has so embodied the spirit of the gifted circus clown as has the kid from Canberra.
There was not a single dull second in this match, save perhaps a few during the swift denouement when Kyrgios slowly disintegrated in the final set.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was packed, but was it for the 2012 champion or for the 2015 bad boy? It did not matter. Where previously the USTA and the chosen broadcaster – now ESPN – would have opted for Roger Federer as the favoured banker in the evening slot, here top billing went to Murray and Kyrgios, each bringing tics and attitude.
This was theatre of a different kind to that provided elsewhere in the tournament, a show to which voyeurs, TV executives, fans and even other players have become ineluctably drawn.
There were so many dips, swoops and crescendos: A flurry of 18 aces – two fewer than Roger Federer inflicted on him in the Wimbledon semi-final – allowed Murray to dictate most of the key points, but Kyrgios would not bend easily. For two sets, Murray soaked up most of his opponent’s eccentricities and returned them with interest.
Kyrgios produced some wondrous winners from nowhere, whipped with glee from impossible positions on both wings, but, as he suspected, Murray was there to block and return.
Then there was a mood shift.
Having waited an hour-and-a-half for a break, Kyrgios handed it back inside a minute at the start of the third. he truly is a quixotic practitioner: faithful to his talent, blind to the consequences.
From there to the end of the set they jousted on level terms until Murray gave up three set points and then banged a routine forehand from the base into the net to give Kyrgios his first set against him in four matches.
Kyrgios, inexplicably, left the scene of his fightback and returned sleeveless, but also without the momentum for which he had worked so hard. Lleyton Hewitt, the one-time rebel recently hoist on to a pedestal as his compatriot’s mentor and still alive in this, his farewell tournament, nodded encouragement from his box. It probably was not a fashion statement.
Murray was in danger if he did not tame the wild thing in front of him. So he broke him to love at the first time of asking, helped by Kyrgios’s lazy chip into the tramlines. The umpire warned him for an obscenity. He seemed not to be bothered; his suspended ATP fine and one-month ban do not figure at this tournament. What an invitation for young man with an interesting vocabulary.
The end was swift and merciful, Murray pushing his young friend to the limits in the fourth set, forcing a final tired forehand out of him before they embraced briefly at the net. Kyrgios has not got many friends in the locker room. Murray is one of them, but he is not alone.
“Me being of a fan of the sport and him, I can live with the other stuff, because there’s a lot of talent there. But you’ve got to show fortitude, focus and intensity with your game.”
Who might have said that? McEnroe, of course, paid by ESPN for his expertise and reminiscences of a past every bit as turbulent as the present which Kyrgios has fashioned for himself in just a couple of seasons. On Tuesday night, McEnroe saw a little something of himself. He probably was privately pleased.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 2nd September 2015 04.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010