If you’re a Nick Kyrgios fan – or part of Team Kyrgios – every day is a roller-coaster ride.
He goes from sublime to profane from one day to the next. And then he shows off the huge, giving heart that’s in there.
And then he loses his cool once more.
Tuesday was no exception, as the 22-year-old Aussie retired after losing the first set of his first-round match in Shanghai against American Steve Johnson.
He wasn’t injured, not physically. Later he explained the health issues he was dealing with.
(Update: Kyrgios didn’t submit to the mandatory physical exmination after the retirement, so he forfeits his 1st-round prize money of $21,085 US. He also was fined $10,000 US for unsportsmanlike conduct).
It’s not easy being Kyrgios, sometimes.
Kyrgios impresses in beating world No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the Beijing semis.
Kyrgios doesn’t have much, get a penalty point, clashes with umpire Mohamed Lahyani on several occasions. And then he goes down 6-2, 6-1 to Rafael Nadal in the Beijing final.
The match did, however, take more than an hour and a half. And there were some moments of brilliance. So there was that.
Kyrgios said he has found his purpose – playing for the kids. He has found the reason for him do be doing what he’s doing, aspects of which he doesn’t really like very much.
He and his family plan to build a “facility for disadvantaged and underprivileged kids where they could hang out, be safe and feel like they were part of a family. There’d be tennis courts and basketball courts and a gym and an oval to kick the footy. There’d be things to eat and beds to sleep in.”
They’re looking for some land in Melbourne – chosen because it’s the sporting capital of Australia over his hometown of Canberra – and looking for corporate partners.
Kyrgios wrote that whenever he’s back in Australia he’ll be hands-on: running tennis camps, shooting hoops, cooking, cleaning up. And he wrote that everything should be “well under way” by Australian Open time, with a fundraising event in partnership with Tennis Australia planned for early in 2018.
After taking the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, Kyrgios went out with doubles partner Lucas Pouille and defeated Rohan Bopanna and Pablo Cuevas in a match tiebreak in the first round at the Shanghai Masters.
And then came …
Tuesday was a day Kyrgios did not really want to be out there. Like some players, he’s not always great with the back-to-back, breakneck speed of tennis events. And there were some extra challenges, which he outlined later.
And he had a tough first round against American Steve Johnson. Who knows, maybe being the No. 13 seed was a bad omen.
He clashed with chair umpire Fergus Murphy. He got a warning for firing a ball far out of the court. And then, up 4-3 in the first-set tiebreaker, he got a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
After losing the tiebreaker 7-5, Kyrgios walked up to the net with hand outstretched, calling it a day against a rather surprised Johnson.
Tuesday was not a good day. Kyrgios, along with several other tennis players and their team members traveling on that high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, caught some sort of bug. So he was struggling from the get-go.
It doesn’t help that for Kyrgios, an asthmatic, the air quality in China is a rough go as it is.
Later, Kyrgios sent out a message on social media.
When Nick Kyrgios met Alexander Zverev Saturday in the China Open semifinals, he was devastating.
It was the fourth meeting between the young guns this season. And Kyrgios has now won three of them.
Not only was his tennis world-class, the Aussie got inside Zverev’s head so comprehensively in the 6-3, 7-5 win that it was the younger, higher-ranked German who was on racket-snapping detail.
Kyrgios sang along to the stadium soundtrack on the set break. And he came out in the first game and hit two ridiculous volleys on the first point. Then, he pulled a Roger Federer-like SABR (although with a two-handed backhand) on the second point that got the crowd into it.
Which unnerved Zverev enough that he double-faulted on the next point.
Later, after a brilliant 31-shot rally, he beat Zverev with a deft and well-conceived shot that was within the German’s reach at the net. But it dipped so dramatically right in front of him that he couldn’t handle it.
Which unnerved Zverev enough that he double-faulted on the next point, coughed up the break of serve and then went rogue on his tennis racket.
What a difference a day makes
The victory put Kyrgios in the final against Rafael Nadal, whom he defeated in their last meeting, on a hard court in Cincinnati in August.
But when Kyrgios came out on Sunday, he wasn’t the same fellow.
Mainly, his serve wasn’t the same. And that likely was the main source of his tennis frustration. His first delivery landed at a 70 per cent clip against Zverev. Against Nadal, he couldn’t break 50 per cent.
And he was cranky, getting into it with umpire Mohamed Lahyani from the get-go on some dodgy line calls. There was no getting him out of his funk.
The SABR didn’t work. He got a couple of challenges wrong. At one point, when Nadal was ready to serve (and we know how long that takes), Kyrgios was still giving Lahyani lip and the world No. 1 had to back off.
There were some ill-advised serve-volley plays on second serves. And unlike much of the week, Kyrgios played speed-dating on his service games, barely waiting for one point to finish before he was ready to begin the next.
On the changeover at 2-5, Lahyani assessed a point penalty, so as he served to stay in the set, he was down love-15 before he stepped to the line.
Two double-faults at 30-all, and the set was over. And the match; Kyrgios earned just one more game as Nadal won 6-2, 6-1 to win his 75th career title.
In a little more than 24 hours, the space of a short weekend, the best and the worst of Kyrgios were on display.
In other words, not an atypical Kyrgios weekend.
“He played well. I played terrible. He’s in great form. He just destroyed me today, so it was too good,” Kyrgios told the media in Beijing. “I put in a pretty good week, had some good wins. It’s tough to find positives when you won three games in the final. But I guess there were positives. In the semi-final I played well, obviously beating Alex (Zverev).”
When it was good, it was GOOD
It was a shame. Because when the tennis was at forefront of this Beijing final, it was breathtaking. But after four wins during the week, the Aussie had turned the page on Beijing.
It wasn’t as though the crowd didn’t get its money’s worth. The women’s final preceded the men Sunday night. As well, despite the lopsided score and the lightning round on serve, the match still took an hour and 32 minutes – 15 minutes longer than the much tighter contest against Zverev.
Kyrgios will drop a couple of spots in the rankings – he’ll be just out of the top 20 Monday. The Aussie won the tournament in Tokyo a year ago and so failed to defend 200 of the 500 points he earned.
Still alive for London
Meanwhile, Kyrgios moved up – five spots – in the race to the ATP Tour finals in London. He stands 15th; in reality, he’s 12th with the idle Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray ahead of him. With two Masters 1000 series tournaments to come, he’s far from out of contention.
And he’ll get right back at it in Shanghai, with a tough first-round match against Steve Johnson in singles, but slotted into a good section of the draw.
With only second-round points to defend and the difference between No. 21 and No. 13 only 400 points right now, it’s an opportunity. He’s also playing doubles with Lucas Pouille.
The Kyrgios road show rages on, coming to a tennis stadium near you.
The comedy duo of Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios took on the pickup team of Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych Friday night, and took it to them.
For Nadal and Berdych (who didn’t play well in front of his home crowd), there was basically no chemistry. For Sock and Kyrgios, simpatico friends off the court who often practice together, it was business as usual.
Fire and Ice in Prague
The contrast between corporate button-down Team Europe and loosey-goosey, young, energetic Team World probably will go down as a highlight in a competition that has not been competitive so far.
The purists (perhaps buying the talking point that this is “not an exhibition”) may be offended by the tons of fun the non-playing members are having at the side of the court.
The kids probably don’t care.
If you can’t win, at least you can have a good time.
It seems the country’s celebrated tennis landscape has rarely been more dysfunctional. And yet, France’s Davis Cup squad has earned its best and perhaps final legitimate chance going forward to raise the Davis Cup.
Despite producing generation after generation of talent, France last won the Davis Cup in 2001. It last won it on home soil in … 1931.
But this year, it will have a chance to do it at home, against the plucky but undermanned Belgium in late November.
It began slowly, as No. 2 Lucas Pouille went down to Dusan Lajovic in four sets to open the tie on Friday.
“I have a lot to do with Lucas’s loss. At a certain point, we weren’t really communication any more. I felt, in the end, I was hurting him. That’s not a good feeling,” Noah told l’Équipe afterwards. “I have a lot influence on this group, and when I get it wrong, everyone gets it wrong. So much talk about how difficult the match was going to be; I may have soaked too much of that in. I passed on my stress to Lucas.”
But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (in his first Davis Cup appearance in 14 months) didn’t drop a set against Laslo Djere. (Noah said he spent most of the first two sets not saying a word, just thinking). The doubles team of Nicholas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won in straight sets,. And then Tsonga came back to win in four against Lajovic to clinch it.
Goffin did his job; he won his singles matches against Jordan Thompson Friday and Nick Kyrgios Sunday in four sets. But it was Steve Darcis, a 33-year-old who reached a career high in singles (No. 38) this past May but has dealt with hamstring and lower back issues the last few months, who was the difference.
Darcis didn’t win on Friday. But he pushed Kyrgios to five sets. And given the top Aussie isn’t in the best of health, no doubt it had an effect on the fifth and deciding rubber Sunday.
Kyrgios took on Goffin – and lost in four. Darcis then took care of Thompson to clinch the tie.
So much goes into making a Davis Cup final these days. And the result is that the best, deepest tennis nation isn’t winning all that often.
You wouldn’t think a one-man team like Belgium could do it twice in three years. But with so many top players taking a pass, if the draw breaks right, an upstart team can take advantage.
Even France, a loaded team, defeated Japan (no Nishikori), Great Britain (no Andy Murray) and Serbia (no Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic or Viktor Troicki) to reach the final this year.
France generally has all its top players available – and a deep pool to choose from. But it’s been a tough go despite the fact that the current generation – Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet – all have been in the top 10.
France last reached the Davis Cup final in 2014. But that happened to be the year Switzerland had both Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka on board – at the same time – to try to add the silver chalice to their resumés.
Monfils defeated Federer in straight sets on the first day, which game them hope. But they lost the key doubles rubber. And then Federer clinched it on Sunday against Gasquet.
The 2010 final, played in Belgrade with the Serbs featuring full-form Djokovic, Tipsarevic and Troicki, was a drama all to itself.
As both squads decided who to suit up for the fifth and deciding rubber, captain Guy Forget got played a little. They were all certain Serbia would bring back Tipsarevic. Instead, they got Troicki (who had disappeared off the bench to go warm up seemingly without France’s knowledge, while Serbia was well aware that Gilles Simon remained on the French bench).
Forget was debating whether to put out Simon (who was 4-0 against Troicki) or Michaël Llodra. He chose fellow lefty serve-volleyer Llodra, who got trounced. And there were French tears all around.
Will this be the time they finally do it?
Internal drama starts at top
A long-awaited title this year might be even more sweet to the players, since French tennis is an internal hot mess right now.
By tennis standards, the infighting might even be at West Wing level.
It all seemed to go downhill after a quarterfinal loss to Great Britain in 2015.
Captain Arnaud Clément, who played with many of the current veteran crop, was summarily sacked. And the imposition of rock star captain Yannick Noah (it appeared Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest voice in his favor) did nothing for team unity.
Rather removed from the day-to-day tennis scene in France, and the instigator of an inconvenient, expensive relocation to Guadeloupe for the first round against Canada a year ago, Noah has come under criticism for being a negligible source of support to the players except for the week they come under his tutelage.
His relationship with Monfils reportedly is fairly non-existent. His relationship with Tsonga, once thought to be solid, wavered when Noah called him out during the quarterfinal tie in Rouen back in April.
As for this semifinal against Serbia, L’Équipe reported the players feel Noah didn’t prepare. They never even saw him at the US Open just weeks ago; Noah’s only involvement was two phone calls to his assistant captain.
To be so out of the loop on the players’ current forms and states of mind so close to the crucial tie didn’t go over well. He would also have no first-hand assessment of the players who might dress for Serbie.
And, L’Équipe writes, that may well have shown in the Pouille defeat. The future of French tennis preferred to listen to his own coach’s tactical advice rather than that of Noah.
When he was first elected president, Giudicelli often lauded Pouille for his grit. He even invented a new verb, “to Pouille“, which meant, “Facing and conquering one’s fear to impose one’s game, while drawing energy from the public’s support.”
But when the 23-year-old lost in the third round of the French Open and said that the inability to handle his nerves had led to cramping, Giudicelli turned on both Pouille and his coach.
Giudicelli said he couldn’t revolutionize French tennis after just 108 days in office. And in the first French Open under his leadership, no French male player reached the quarterfinals. Overall, it was the poorest showing since 2000. Hence the attack on his players’ grit.
But on the women’s side (so often ignored by French Federation suits unless it suits them), two made the singles quarterfinals. That, of course, was due to Giucidelli’s leadership and involvement leading to their increased motivation – despite only being in office 108 days.
Noah and Giudicelli
As this tie against Serbia neared, Noah admitted there were tensions between the federation and his players and he sided with his players; the message was relayed to Giudicelli that he wouldn’t tolerate the president’s comments “polluting” the players.
There was some backstory to that, too. Noah’s lifelong friend Gilles Moretton (a former French player) was suing Giudicelli for defamation, after Giudicelli refused Moretton’s candidacy for president of a French league because, he said, Moretton had been one of those involved in the 2011 ticket reselling scheme that eventually doomed Giudicelli’s predecessor, Jean Gachassin.
(Giudicelli, a high-level French Federation official, had previously been accused of putting the cone of silence on Gachassin’s alleged involvement, perhaps in the hope that it would help his presidential campaign. That accusation is contained in a report on the scandal by a government body called “The Inspector General for Youth and Sports”. Gachassin is accused of selling some 250-700 French Open tickets – for years – at cost to a travel agent friend who then resold them at up to five times their face value. The tribunal’s decision on this case was postponed, and due to be announced on Tuesday).
His lawyer, speaking in his defense, said Giudicelli was responsible for ending the scam.
L’Équipe chronicled an awkward moment Thursday when Giudicelli tried to say hello to Lucas Pouille three separate times, only to be dissed and dismissed.
“Hello, Lucas,” the president said to Pouille – on three occasions.
Giudicelli pushed it even further. “So, we don’t say ‘Hello’ any more, Lucas?”
Pouille, who had been talking to someone else, turned around. “Sure, we say hello. And goodbye.”
Belgians go quietly along
Among the many things Noah said over the weekend was that he fully expected France to have to travel to Australia for the final. That would have been a rematch of the 2001 final, that was won by the French in Melbourne. And so, full circle.
Van Herck: "Noah a dit hier qu'il allait sûrement aller en Australie j'espère qu'il n'est pas fâché de jouer en France." #noah daviscup
How about Bercy, which will be the site of the Paris Masters event just a few weeks before? According to BFM.TV, the rap group IAM are booked there that weekend.
BFM.TV says the French federation has already been in contact with the brand new U Arena in Nanterre, in the French suburbs – finally completed after the usual French bureaucratic delays and set to open next month with three concerts by the Rolling Stones.
Wherever it is, there’s a great dynamic brewing between France’s Goliath and Belgium’s David – literally.
For all the news about this weekend’s Davis Cup ties (and more great pics like the one above, go to their website.
The ink isn’t even dry on the lineup for next month’s Laver Cup exhibition event in Prague.
And already there is a substitution.
It’s not a shocker. But Canadian Milos Raonic, who had a procedure done Thursday to relieve the pain in his left wrist, is out.
And Aussie Nick Kyrgios – perhaps the only (knock wood) healthy marquee player left eligible for the “rest of the world” team, will step in.
The event announced it Friday.
You have to think they made it well worth his while.
It seems unlikely that they didn’t already know on Wednesday, when they made the big, splashy announcement, that Raonic wasn’t going to participate. But why spoil a good party.
It seems impossible that Raonic will play Davis Cup for Canada against India, in a key World Group playoff tie next month. The tie takes place in Edmonton the weekend before the Laver Cup.
Decimated “World” team
You would think that Kyrgios would be at the top of the Laver Cup list for the “World” team, which beyond Raonic had three Americans – Jack Sock, Sam Querrey and John Isner – as the team.
John McEnroe chose Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina and tennis’s new “it guy” Denis Shapovalov of Canada as his captain’s picks. Europe captain Bjorn Borg had a no-brainer in selecting Alexander Zverev.
Kei Nishikori, who never signed on for the Laver Cup, is out for the year anyway.
What a shame that this event kicks off in a season when so many top players have pulled the plug. Add Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Nishikori (and Andy Murray, who has never seemed particularly intereste) to the other top players, and you have a pretty star-studded event.
As it is, as long as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer stay healthy, they’ll have enough star power. But it’s definitely not what it could have been.
After a victory, when he can so often either look nonplussed or annoyed?
The 22-year-old Aussie is looking as good right now as he has in five months, before his hip issues hit and some off-court distractions had his mind and heart elsewhere.
And his reward is a spot in the Cincinnati final Sunday,. It will be his first appearance in a final at the Masters 1000 level. He’ll play No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria.
In the span of three weeks through Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami back in March, Kyrgios defeated Alexander Zverev twice. He defeated Novak Djokovic twice. And after defaulting to him at Indian Wells, Kyrgios gave champion Roger Federer everything he could handle in a 7-6 (9), 6-7 (9), 7-6 (5) defeat in the Miami semifinals.
Since then, a lot of struggles.
But this week, the mercurial Aussie defeated Ivo Karlovic. He then schooled Rafael Nadal – both in the same day on Friday. If the hip was going to act up, Saturday would have been the day. But Kyrgios defeated David Ferrer 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) Saturday night in a match that engaged both players, separately and together.
Kyrgios smiling on a tennis court is rare enough. Seeing the uber-intense Ferrer smiling on a tennis court on such a big occasion, at such a key moment, is equally rare. And yet, it happened on several occasions.
Each in their own way, they actually appeared to be enjoying it. And the contrast in styles that can so often make for a compelling match was there in spades for this one. If the crowd – a midwestern crowd not exactly inclined to cheer for the outlier type – seemed to be on Ferrer’s side, it was more than likely because they wanted another set of this.
For Kyrgios, things appear to be falling back into place again. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time, with the US Open just around the corner.
A couple of weeks ago at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., Kyrgios retired in the second set of his first-round match against Tennys Sandgren.
A few weeks before, he had retired after losing the first two sets to Pierre-Hugues Herbert at Wimbledon. And a couple of weeks before that, he had retired at Queen’s Club after losing the first set to Donald Young.
After that match in D.C., Kyrgios spent a few days on site, hanging with his pal Jack Sock. He was trying to decide whether it was even worth going to Montreal to try to play the Rogers Cup.
We saw him coming out of the gym early one afternoon on the Friday of that week, asked him how he was. He just shook his head.
But not an hour later, he was out on the practice court, giving some young guys the memory of their young lives.
When he was hitting for real, he kept up a monologue for the benefit of the fans who were watching him. With gallows humor, he moaned that his girlfriend had dumped him, and that he couldn’t even play tennis, and that things in Kyrgiosville were pretty grim, pretty much.
"I used to be good, man. My girlfriend dumped me and now I can't play." Kyrgios shooting the breeze with fans. People are loving it. pic.twitter.com/YgCUQp5lEj
In the end, Kyrgios decided to go to Montreal. And in defeating Viktor Troicki and Paolo Lorenzi – easily – he won his first back-to-back matches since the Mutua Madrid Open in early May. He lost to eventual champion Zverev.
He had some fun there, too, inviting a Twitter follower to find him and come hit with him. Which the fellow did.
His hip issue is ongoing, but Kyrgios has increased the tennis load on it. And it seems, from week to week, that it’s responding.
Other than an ill-fated Tweener here and there, Kyrgios has seem fully engaged in the process of trying to win a big tournament in Cincinnati.
He admits that it’s a lot easier to get motivated against the best players, on the biggest stages, noting that his loss to little-known Argentine Nicolas Kicker in Lyon, France earlier this year came in front of about “15 people”.
There’s literally no bigger stage in tennis than Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Kyrgios also plans to play doubles with his mate Matt Reid, for whom he had a special message after the victory.
During his press conference Saturday, Kyrgios gave Reid a shut out out for helping him climb out of the hole he was in in D.C., and be able to rise to what he’s been able to do this week in Cincinnati.
And with the notable absentees and the general state of health at the top of the men’s game, there’s an opening for someone, if they can keep their head together and survive best-of-five sets in the late August New York City heat.
It might be just a Nick-tease. Who knows what will happen in Sunday’s final. All the tennis might catch up to the hip and if Kyrgios isn’t feeling 100 per cent, it might not be pretty. He is the tennis equivalent to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.
But if he can keep it going another few weeks, who knows where it could lead?
Kyrgios is already back in the top 20 with his efforts this week after falling out of it last week for the first time since May of 2016. He’ll be at No. 18 if he loses Sunday, No. 12 if he wins.
With the known absences in New York (Djokovic, Wawrinka, Nishikori), Kyrgios would be seeded no worse than No. 9 at the US Open, in that case. Even if he loses, he’ll be inside the top 16 seeds.
As well, if he wins Sunday, Kyrgios would shoot up to No. 10 in the race to the ATP Tour finals in London. With Wawrinka and Djokovic, technically ahead of him, already out, that puts him at No. 8.
In a few weeks, when Wimbledon rolls around, the end of the blue period will be upon us.
But until then, we are not yet done with the Nike Blue – Paramount Blue, officially – that was ubiquitous during the clay-court season.
It was a step above the yellow and green neons that fought a valiant battle for supremacy on the Nike players during the Indian Wells-Miami swing a couple of months ago.
But the French Open was absolutely overrun with it.
Here is just a small sample of the protagonists. They ranged from the juniors, to the pro players – even to legends like John McEnroe and Conchita Martiez.
There were two varieties for the women. The basic kit matched up with the shorts worn by the men.
Some of the women were chosen to wear the non-patterned Maria Sharapova kit : Russian juniors Olesya Pervushina and Anastasia Potapova, American Anastasia Anisimova, Croat Alja Tomljanovic and Canadian Françoise Abanda.
But the vestiges from the battling neons era remained.
Where are the blue socks?
It was all about the shoes and socks.
We asked several Nike players why the heck the shoes didn’t match. None of them had an answer; they just wear what they’ve given, or paid to wear.
But one did point this out: “The socks don’t match, either!”
There was a little of the green neon around the trim of the shirts – and of course the Swoosh. But the sock/shoe wardrobe malfunction was definitely out-of-the-box thinking.
They should all have been wearing Nadal’s shoes. And it would have been perfect.
As well, they are also 10 French Open, winning championship shoes. They could even have kept the personalized “Rafa” and No. 9 on the backs of them – just for good karma.
The only outfit that matched the shoes was the black version of the kit, worn by Genie Bouchard.
On a related note, the two junior girls’ finalists and all four girls in the doubles final were tangled up in Nike Paramount blue. So you can see where the future is headed once they all graduate to the pro tour.
He returned the following week in Madrid, where he posted solid wins over Marcos Baghdatis and Ryan Harrison in the first two rounds. But he lost badly to Rafael Nadal. Kyrgios had a better tournament in doubles with Jack Sock, until they withdrew before the semifinals.
The Aussie practiced in Rome on Monday, but judged the hip a deal-breaker.
Tough first opponent
He was to play Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in the first round Tuesday. That’s not exactly the cushiest way to ease yourself into a tournament – not by a longshot.
Kyrgios was also entered in the doubles with Fabio Fognini – a duo that was sure to be a crowd-pleaser in Rome.
He was replaced in singles by lucky loser Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine. Treat Huey and Michael Venus will be the alternate pair in doubles.
On paper, the first Mutua Madrid Open semifinal is the final, as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet for the 50th time in their careers.
Djokovic leads the head-to-head, 26-23. The 50 meetings are an Open era record.
In fact, the Serb leads the head-to-heads with all of his main rivals. That’s a fact much underreported during an era in which there seems only to be room enough for one “great rivalry” – Federer vs. Nadal.
The Djokovic-Nadal clay-court rivalry can be divided into two eras. And the Madrid tournament was the turning point.
Nadal won their first nine meetings on the terre battue. The 10th came in the semifinals of the Madrid Open in 2009. The Mallorcan won, but it was by far the closest Djokovic had come. Nadal had to mount a major comeback before prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9).
They didn’t meet again on clay for two full years. The 10th meeting came … in Madrid.
Djokovic defeated Nadal 7-5, 6-4 and got on the board. Since that breakthrough, Djokovic leads the clay-court rivalry 6-5. He has won the last three, and their seven meetings overall.
The match will take place exactly a year to the day since their last meeting, in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Italian Open.
Djokovic runs the rivalries
Djokovic is playing his first tournament since dismissing his entire support team. He has been accompanied by younger brother Marko and spiritual advisor Pepe Imaz.
Winner heavy favourite for title
The winner of Djokovic vs. Nadal will be the heavy favourite in Sunday’s final as two long shots reached the semifinals in the other half of the draw.
No. 1 seed Andy Murray’s level was a concern in a loss to lucky loser Borna Coric. No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka was far from impressive as he went out to the ultimate conundrum, Frenchman Benoit Paire.
The second semifinal will feature the players who took advantage of those upsets. No. 8 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria (who defeated Coric) will play unseeded Uruguayan veteran Pablo Cuevas (who defeated Paire).
If No. 27 Cuevas can take the title, he would be the lowest-ranked player to win a Masters 1000 tournament since Paris in 2005 when Tomas Berdych (then No. 50) won.
The women’s final
As the week in Madrid unfolded, the women’s field imploded again.
Seeded players Johanna Konta and Garbiñe Muguruza lost before Monday even dawned. No. 2 Karolina Pliskova was eliminated early for the second consecutive week. Top seed Angelique Kerber injured her hamstring in the final game she played against Canadian Bouchard in the third round.
She’s the top seed in Rome this week, but doubtless doesn’t expect much.
The form player has been Romania’s Simona Halep, the defending Madrid champion and No. 3 seed. She is battle-tested after pulling out tight victories against two proven veteran clay-courters, Roberta Vinci and Samantha Stosur.
In the final, Halep will face No. 14 seed Kristina Mladenovic. The No. 1 Frenchwoman is on quite a run during this initial part of the women’s clay-court season.
Mladenovic ended Maria Sharapova’s comeback tournament in Stuttgart and reached the final. Friday, she defeated doubles partner and 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova to reach the Madrid final.
The women’s doubles final on Saturday will feature two relatively new pairings, as the ladies have played musical chairs in this first part of 2017.
Martina Hingis (who went from Sania Mirza to Coco Vandeweghe over the last year) now partners with Yung-Jan Chan of Taipei. Chan had long played with her sister, Hao-Ching Chan.
They will meet Timea Babos of Hungary (who used to play with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova) and Andrea Hlavackova (who played for years with fellow Czech Lucie Hradecka, then with Shuai Peng). Got that straight?
Sock-Kyrgios pull out
On the men’s side, a brash Aussie-American combo blazed through the draw to the semifinals.
Nick Kyrgios didn’t have the fortitude or energy to offer more than token resistance against Nadal in the singles. But in his defense, he flew from the U.S. to Australia to attend his grandfather’s funeral, and then back to Madrid.
But his efforts with good mate Jack Sock in the doubles were impressive.
Sock and Kyrgios rolled through Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau (the 2015 Wimbledon champions and defending Madrid champions, unseeded this year). They then upset No. 5 seeds Rajeev Ram and Raven Klaasen (champions at Indian Wells). Both victories came in straight sets.
On Friday, they beat the well-decorated Bryan twins 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 10-7 in a barnburner that featured zero breaks of serve. They out-aced the Bryans 13-0 and gave up only one break point. They saved all six break points they faced.
(Their semi-final opponents were to be No. 4 seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo. Unfortunately, they gave them a walkover.)
The other match will pit home-country favorites (and reigning French Open champions) Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez against the French team of Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.
The Madrid men’s singles and doubles finals will take place Sunday.
Rome already under way
If you needed any more tennis, the qualifying begins in Rome Saturday, on both the men’s and women’s sides.
Nicolas Almagro, who gave Djokovic such a tussle in the Serb’s Madrid opener, is in the men’s field along with the likes of Kevin Anderson and Alexandr Dolgopolov. All three are former top-15 players; they have seen their rankings drop because of injury and couldn’t get straight into the main draw.
A notable qualifying absentee on the women’s side is Bouchard. The Canadian reached the quarter-finals in Madrid and lost to Kuznetsova Thursday night. But she was a late scratch, for reasons still undetermined.
If you’re not a big fan of the volatile Aussie Nick Kyrgios, but you’re keeping an open mind and you’re willing to see another side to him beyond some of his less-endearing on-court moments, here’s a suggestion:
Watch him play doubles.
The 21-year-old is a different guy on the doubles court. He’s much more relaxed, he smiles a whole lot more, and perhaps he lets more of his real personality shine through. He also takes it very seriously.
Kyrgios and Jack Sock are into the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open doubles after a pair of straight-set wins against two very accomplished doubles tandems. They defeated Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau in the first round, and upset No. 5 seeds Raven Klaasen and Rajeev Ram 6-4, 6-4 Tuesday.
These two, good mates, have often tried in the past to team up on the doubles court. For a few years, Sock and Canadian Vasek Pospisil were a steady duo (they won Wimbledon in 2014 in their first tournament together).
After that, one circumstance after another prevented it. Only once has it happened. But they had to retire after the first set of their second-round match in Toronto last summer against Pospisil and Daniel Nestor.
But they practice together often – to the reported mild dismay of Australian Open captain and Kyrgios advisor Lleyton Hewitt.
Hewitt, as serious as a heart attack during practice when he played, thinks they don’t work hard enough because they joke around too much.
He’s not totally wrong. Check out this footage of the pair entertaining the crowd thoroughly at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2015.
The thing about these two is that the kids LOVE them. And that’s the demographic that will make the game grow during the next era, the one without Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Teenaged boys follow them around as though they’re a pair of pied pipers. In the video above, all the boys from Tennis Canada’s high-performance junior program were on hand and watched most of the practice. Félix Auger-Aliassime (then 14, in the red shirt on the left) is probably the best 16-year-old in the world right now. He won the boys’ title at the US Open last summer.