Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon reviews the latest in the Rafael Nadal versus Nick Kyrgios rivalry.
Which current rivalry is the best one in men’s tennis?
Ask your average tennis fan and odds are that they’ll give you the prototypical answer to the above question, with any two of the Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic probably the overwhelming favourites.
It’s easy to see why: they’re three of the best players in history, maybe the actual three best, and they’ve played so, so, so often against one another. You know you’ll see a match of extremely high quality and, well, what more could you ask for in a rivalry but one that happens many times and where the matches are hotly contested?
Well, you could ask for a little bit of pizzazz, how about that? For the most part, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic will give you tennis and nothing but tennis. All three are immaculate ambassadors for the sport and you can rest assured that they’ll never let anything but their racquet speak—though, at times, Djokovic has come close.
But for our money, no rivalry is currently as fascinating in the sport as that between Nadal and Nick Kyrgios.
Really? Yes, and the answer is three-fold.
The first thing that sticks out between the pair is how much they’re polar opposites of another. On the one hand, Nadal’s future as a future tennis great was seemingly foretold since his childhood when he decided to play tennis with his left hand despite being a natural right-hander. Not only that, but the Spaniard is consumed by one thing and one thing only, which is playing and winning tennis matches. He treats the sport with respect and reverence, and has never seen a controversy he couldn’t dodge his way out of.
When Centre Court met the underarm ace…
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 4, 2019
Kyrgios, on the other hand, seemingly does not give two fucks about playing, or winning, tennis matches. He was anointed as the possible new best player in the world as early as 2014 and spent the past five+ years not in any hurry to live up to the billing. He treats tennis like the game that it is and has never shied away from the fact that he would have rather become a basketball player—it’s just that it was easier making money quicker with tennis, so he chose tennis.
Here’s where you tell us, “Well this is all dandy and fine but differences in personalities doesn’t make for great tennis necessarily.”
Sure, let’s get to the actual tennis.
Nadal and Kyrgios haven’t played each other often, but when they have it’s often led to compelling matches. Their matches are always a study in contrasts, with the surgical precision and relentless assault of Nadal on one side and the free-flowing and carelessness of the Australian on the other. Until this past week Kyrgios had managed to compile a .500 record against Nadal; despite the loss in Wimbledon, the tempestuous Aussie is still a shockingly great 3-4 against the Spaniard for his record. The number of players for whom we can say as much is shockingly small.
Let’s talk about this recent Wimbledon loss too, as it’s a prime example of why we love this rivalry so much. For the better part, the rivalries in men’s tennis are confined to what unfolds on the clay, grass or hard courts; once players step off the court, they for the most part regain a healthy respect for one another.
But Nadal and Kyrgios? They take their rivalry off the court as well.
After the loss, the Australian refused to apologize for going at Nadal’s body during a point in their match, saying essentially that yes he wanted to hit him over the head if it meant he would win the point. It was peak Kyrgios, really: receiving a lobbed question he could have easily sidestepped, he instead dove right in and dug his heels in further.
Nadal, meanwhile, was his typical self as well. “[Kyrgios] has a lot of good ingredients,” Nadal said after his win. “But of course there remains an important one sometimes, and that is love, the passion for this game. Without really loving this game that much, it’s difficult to achieve important things.”
This quote falls in line with what he said of the Australian after losing to him in Acapulco this year, when he said Kyrgios lacked respect for the fans, his opponents as well as himself.
(That sound you hear is us banging our head over the desk, because if we wanted to be lectured we would take classes, not tune in to Wimbledon.)
Whether they’ll keep at it for long remains to be seen. At this point, Nadal has only a few years remaining in his storied career while we wouldn’t be surprised to see the 24-year-old Kyrgios decide to call it a day anytime now, and move on to whatever else he wants in his life.
Let’s enjoy the rivalry while we can.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG