Of the 128 men who set out on their Wimbledon adventure a week ago, maybe a handful genuinely believed they would be in contention for the title on the final weekend. Nick Kyrgios is among them and on Monday he gets to prove he is good enough to get there – against the best player left in the draw, Andy Murray.
The world No2 – an avuncular defender of the Australian and his occasional on-court excesses – will show him respect but, if he is in the ascendancy, no mercy. Murray has beaten Kyrgios four times out of four on the tour. A fifth today would carry him into the quarter-finals, where he will play his favourite opponent, a Frenchman: either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Richard Gasquet.
Kyrgios finished off his held-over match against Feliciano López with some imperious tennis on Sunday, while Tsonga took four hours and 25 minutes to beat the most obstinate opponent in the game, John Isner (the last set took two hours and eight minutes), and Gasquet went through after beating the Spanish left-hander Albert Ramos‑Viñolas in four sets.
Tsonga has beaten Murray only twice in 14 attempts, most recently in Canada two years ago. Murray tamed a resurgent Gasquet in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros last month, his eighth win against his near-contemporary against three defeats, the last of them four years and seven matches ago in Rome.
So the draw is opening up nicely for Murray – if he beats Kyrgios in the match pencilled in third on Centre Court. “I’ve got the tools to do it,” Kyrgios said of his challenge to reach the quarters. “But he’s one of the best players in the world. We’re great mates, and he’s a great guy.”
Sentiment aside, Murray has to take care of business against Kyrgios – something officials have to do on an almost daily basis. There is no escaping that some of his behaviour here has been self-indulgent, to put it kindly, but Murray insists: “He is good fun, he is nice. He chats to everyone. I have never really seen him in a bad mood off the court. He has always been nice.”
He added: “Obviously on court – like I have many times and loads of players have in the past – he has made mistakes, done stuff that is wrong. Sometimes in the press he does get a hard time and he goes on the defensive when maybe he doesn’t need to – but I can understand that as well. When you see what some of the other players have done here – players that are better than him and won a lot more than him – the coverage they get for destroying a racket is much less than he does for saying to the umpire: ‘You have done a bad job’, or ‘You were terrible today’, whatever. But, because it is him, it is a bigger story.”
Murray has handed out no sermons to the younger man. “I’ve chatted to him about [his behaviour] but, unless someone asks me for my advice, I won’t just volunteer it,” he said.
“I chat to him all the time about loads of stuff: basketball, a lot about tennis as well. He does love tennis. Maybe sometimes he says he doesn’t care that much about tennis, but he does. And he knows all the players well, he knows their games and stuff. It’s not when he goes home he just turns the TV off; he does watch it and he follows it a lot.”
All of which paints a rounded picture of a largely misunderstood prodigy.
However, just because he is “a good guy” away from the pressures of the game and other players might get away with bad behaviour, Kyrgios does not deserve an unquestioning pass – especially when he was heard to chastise his box for their lack of support the other day, describing them as “retarded” in an echo of his similarly careless compatriot, Bernard Tomic, who also has used that offensive term at this tournament, in a press conference. Perhaps it’s catching.
Murray says Kyrgios is good enough to win a slam. “I know how difficult these events are to win – but he will definitely give himself chances. He is improving all the time. He has performed, out of the younger guys, probably the best in the slams. [Dominic] Thiem at the French did very well. Nick played well in Australia, has played some good stuff in Paris and also here he has been pretty consistent.”
He is not sure, though, if Kyrgios’s passion makes him more dangerous or more vulnerable. “It is really difficult to say. Some days it helps, some days it doesn’t. Everyone is different. So long as he directs his frustration to what is happening on the court and not getting distracted by what is going on off it, it can be a positive thing.”
Murray – logically, as he is on the opposite side of the draw – does not consider his run to the final will be any easier because of his departed professional friend, Novak Djokovic. If he gets there, however, the odds are he will be facing someone almost as formidable, Roger Federer. The Swiss, playing as well as he has done in a little while, meets the unseeded American Steve Johnson, whose win over Grigor Dimitrov was not the shock it might once have been.
We live in interesting times.
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