Limping, gallant and feeding off the supportive energy of a partisan crowd, Nick Kyrgios survived two match points and five sets of electric tennis to advance to the third round of the Australian Open.
The Australian beat France’s 29th-seed Ugo Humbert 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 on a hot and humid night at John Cain Arena.
It was not quite an epic, and certainly not a classic but, as is always the case with Kyrgios, it was pure entertainment from start to finish — three-and-a-half hours of sparkling tennis and as much grinning as cursing.
Down a break in the fourth set, Kyrgios looked a beaten man but he drew something from within himself to force a successful tiebreak and then galloped home in the decider.
“That match was a crazy one,” Kyrgios said afterwards. “I’m still kind of in awe about the atmosphere. The stadium definitely didn’t feel half full, that’s for sure. The atmosphere was insane.”
The only time the pair had previously met — in Acapulco a year ago — Kyrgios dropped a set, retired hurt with a wrist injury and faced a chorus of boos from a crowd he called “disrespectful”. It proved to be his final match of 2020.
His body fared only a little better this time.
After his straight sets victory in the first round, Kyrgios said simply: “I feel old.”
At times on Wednesday night, he looked it, limping about like an old man, his left knee clearly causing him discomfort.
But those who say he crumbles under pressure, or when circumstances go against him, will have seen a new side to the world number 47.
The rangy and bow-legged Humbert is 22 and rising. His best result at a grand slam was a fourth-round run at Wimbledon two years ago. But Kyrgios called him one of the most improved players on the tour in the lead-up to this encounter, and at times in this contest he proved it.
It was a match full of the best and worst of Kyrgios.
There were underarm serves and fake underarm serves. One Kyrgios backhand — or was it technically a forehand? — was played by flicking the racket behind his back when he’d outrun the ball.
He regularly worked the crowd into a frenzy, windmilling his arms and putting on a show.
The bad seemed to be borne of frustration with his body more than anything, although his entourage again received their obligatory dressing–down.
Kyrgios broke a racket, successfully petitioned for the removal of the net sensor and swore like a wharfie.
There are nights at Melbourne Arena when it feels like Kyrgios will become distracted by a train rumbling through nearby Richmond station and chase it down the tracks.
Tonight wasn’t so bad on that scale, but he often teetered close to the edge and there were two code violations for unsportsmanlike conduct.
But he kept scrapping and fighting.
In the first set, a series of let calls began the running battle between Kyrgios and the chair umpire over the net sensor. At 4-4, did Humbert first saved a break point and then manufactured two of his own, pinching the opener in 42 mins.
Kyrgios’ first racket perished at that point.
It required perseverance in a marathon game, but the Kyrgios fightback began when he broke early in the second set.
Although he was in obvious discomfort, he played the rest of that set on his own terms, taking it in 41 minutes. Would he be able to tough it out? Could he stay focused?
At a momentary risk of losing his serve early in the third set, Kyrgios again screamed for “energy” from his support crew. It wasn’t forthcoming.
“I’m so pissed off,” Kyrgios said, proving it by slapping away aimlessly to lose it in 31 minutes, having committed nine unforced errors while his opponent erred with only one.
The fourth set could not have started any worse for Kyrgios. He lost his serve and looked spent. “I’m f*****g done,” he confirmed.
Yet he wasn’t, and the night soon took a dramatic turn.
Kyrgios saved two match points, the second with an outrageous double-handed backhand winner across the court.
There was a cheeky smile at that point, which broadened further when he caned another sublime winner with his forehand. It would go to a tiebreak.
Later, Kyrgios admitted that at that stage, he told himself it could be one of the most memorable wins of his career. “I put myself in a position to have moments like this,” Kyrgios said.
To say he rose to the occasion at that point is an understatement. His racket became a bullwhip, and Humbert was suddenly flailing.
Playing freewheeling tennis, Kyrgios established five set points and the second was a blistering ace down the middle.
Having squabbled again about let calls at the start of the fifth set, Kyrgios steadied himself, broke in the third game and by then Humbert’s shoulders had slumped.
The Frenchman saved a match point too, but Kyrgios was not going to slip up. He served it out, dropped to his hands and knees and soaked up a standing ovation.
Interviewed on court afterwards, Kyrgios called it “one of the craziest” matches he’s played.
“If you were in my head, I was actually just thinking about all the shit I was gonna cop if I lost that match,” Kyrgios said.
Instead, he will have the pleasure of playing world number three Dominic Thiem in the third round.
Paying tribute to Humbert, Kyrgios said: “The only thing I really had on him today was experience … I don’t know how I got out of it.” At the grand age of 25, Kyrgios says he’s now an “old, savvy veteran”.
“At this stage of my career, I feel old. I just want to have a glass of red wine after a game like that.”
Few who watched Kyrgios up close on Wednesday would judge him if he polished off the rest of the bottle.