As Nick Kyrgios produced a performance as bright as the necklace he wore reflecting the lights of New York City on Monday night, it was hard to believe he was in a daze. The Australian performed with a sizzle ideal for a historic occasion, sporting the look of a matinee idol in total control of the silver screen in his showdown against Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Serena Williams’ pending retirement had drawn a record crowd to the Billie Jean King Tennis Center and the opening act for an American icon’s farewell drew rave reviews. Instead, Kyrgios was the best supporting actor for New York’s star-studded opening nights.
The 23rd seed played the role to perfection, deploying his wide repertoire in a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) triumph without overshadowing the star attraction, even in the fashion bet. As sparkling as the Canberran’s necklace was, it was also second fiddle to the ensemble worn by Williams, who danced around Arthur Ashe Stadium with diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
It’s now been seven years since Kyrgios shared equal billing with Williams on a billboard attached to a building in the borough of Queens, positioned to capture the attention of the tens of thousands of fans heading to Flushing Meadows and commuter workers in Manhattan per day. Grind. Such was the box office appeal of Kyrgios, who had reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and Melbourne Park in the 14 months leading up to the 2015 US Open, he seemed destined to become the idol of the ‘prime time at Arthur Ashe Arena that Williams has shown. 25 years
With her recent run to the Wimbledon final and the consistency of her performances since briefly falling out of the top 100 earlier this year, she could still provide more than a cameo or two on this big court. Watching Williams from the players’ lounge as she defeated Danka Kovinić before the clash with her childhood friend, Kyrgios said it was impossible not to be inspired by the queen of tennis.
“Just the buzz that it brought, you know, breaking the story with the amount of people watching and buying tickets, it’s amazing,” he said. “This is my goal, to grow the sport as much as I can. Hopefully Serena can continue and so can I. Playing one of my…best friends after Serena’s possible last game, with an attendance record, is crazy. A night I will never forget. My 200th win too. Was good.”
Despite the significance of the scene, this meeting had a bittersweet element. In 2013, when Kyrgios overcame his younger compatriot to win the Australian Open men’s title, it seemed likely that the pair would become regular combatants competing for major titles. They moved like young giraffes, their legs still flabby and their bodies yet to fully mature, but it was already clear from their serves and direct handles that they were talents to watch.
Roger Federer was one of those who took note. He invited them both on a trip abroad to train with him. Sponsors had pounced on the pair long before that junior final in Melbourne. The transition from youth success to senior stardom is difficult, but both Australians started their careers very well. Both have defeated the Swiss superstar. But the couple has also endured more than their fair share of physical and mental setbacks.
There have been high points, none more so than the Australian Open doubles crown they shared in January, but tennis has really tested them both. They had played in the minors before when they were still kids, but Monday night was their first outing as men. And while Kyrgios handled it better, it was a tough experience for both of them.
“Our lockers are next to each other [and] “I went up to Thanasi and said, ‘Look, that was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt on a tennis court,'” Kyrgios said. “We went through some things together when I was really struggling. He always supported her. I room with him. He always cared. I have seen him resilient to all his injuries. We only have respect off the court, which trumps everything on the court. But it was really uncomfortable. I don’t want to do it again, to be honest.”
Kokkinakis turns his attention to the doubles and has to wait another year for a chance to send off a Grand Slam run that Kyrgios and several others are convinced he can manage. His conqueror now faces France’s Benjamin Bonzi on Wednesday and Kyrgios expressed his fatigue to return to the tour as he spoke after midnight in New York.
But in a city where he has caused his share of controversy, the Wimbledon finalist now senses opportunity. “It’s just one more challenge I have to face. Last stop here before home, so … let’s see what we can do here,” he said.
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