Nick Kyrgios scored the second top-five win of his career on Wednesday with a 6–7 (2), 7–6 (5), 7–6 (12) victory over No. 2 Roger Federer to advance to the third round of the Madrid Open. Kyrgios, who turned 20-years-old last month, saved two match points in the decisive tiebreaker to seal the win after two hours and 37 minutes.
"I think this is definitely the greatest win of my career so far," Kyrgios said after the match. "It doesn't really feel real at the moment. I didn't really feel like I was playing out there. It almost felt like I was watching. It sort of felt similar to that match at Wimbledon I played against Rafa."
Little separated the two throughout the match as both men had a strong serving day in Madrid's thin air. Federer came back from a break down in the first set to take the first set, only to see Kyrgios return the favor in the second set. After falling behind an early break, Kyrgios broke to get back on serve and the played a top-notch tiebreaker to earn a 5-0 lead, closing it out 7-5. The third set saw neither man face a break point as they went into yet another tiebreaker. This time it was Kyrgios who kept the pressure on. Federer saved five match points but Kyrgios finally pulled away with the biggest win of his career on clay.
As tennis looks to the future and the prospect of an ATP Tour without the Big Four, Kyrgios has emerged as a player you want to watch. No young player is as polarizing as the flashy, volatile, shot-making Aussie. His talent is undeniable. We saw that when he pulled this trick-shot out of the bag on his Centre Court debut on route to defeating then No. 1 Nadal at Wimbledon. His willingness to compete has already been proven in his nascent career. He has a healthy habit of saving match points. To earn that shot against Nadal last year he had to save nine match points against Richard Gasquet on an outer court to win 10-8 in the fifth. And his ability to to play courageous tennis in high-pressure moments is hard to get your head around. How else can you explain his perfectly feathered drop shot at 12-12 in decisive tiebreaker against Federer on Wednesday to set up what would be his final match point? As they said in the old days, the kid has moxie. As the kids say today, Nick Kyrgios has swag.
That preternatural confidence can rub people the wrong way and players have bristled in the face of his showmanship. There's no denying that there are moments—frequent moments—when his expressive nature veers into pure petulance. Not too many 20-year-olds in tennis would curse out one of the most well-respected chair umpires in Mohamed Lahyani right in front of Federer, as Kyrgios did on Wednesday in Madrid. Or crush rackets and drop f-bombs with his frequency. Just last week, Kyrgios smashed a ball out of the stadium in a third-set tiebreaker at the Estoril Open, which should have been his third code violation (and game penalty which would have lost him the match) if the umpire had seen it. The umpire didn't, Kyrgios went on to win the match and eventually advance to his first ATP final.
And therein lies the Kyrgios dilemma. Unlike team sports, there is no coach that can bench you for bad behavior. Tennis coaches are, after all, employed by the player. In tennis, you learn your lessons through wins and losses and the fact is winning justifies anything. That Kyrgios is able to have these outbursts and still keep his head and play exciting, dynamic tennis is a credit to him.
There is no cookie-cutter mold for a successful tennis player, nor should there ever be. Federer, once a volatile racket-breaking youngster himself, learned to control his emotions and became one of the greatest players of all time with a reputation for a cool head. That works for him. But for players like Kyrgios or another intense competitor like Andy Murray, that model doesn't work. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as the wins keep coming, especially as Kyrgios, much like Murray, has always been incredibly deferential and complimentary of his fellow players.
The heart-stopping Federer-Kyrgios match capped off a long and dramatic day in Madrid, which saw No. 1 Serena Williams save three match points to defeat former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka 7–6(5), 3–6, 7–6 (1) to keep her undefeated season alive. Earlier in the day defending champion Maria Sharapova was pushed to the brink by Caroline Garcia before winning 6–2, 4–6, 7–5.
As the night session wraps up in Madrid, a few thoughts on a grinding day of results:
A slight setback for Federer
Though he walked away with the title last week at the Istanbul Open, Federer's performance through the week was not particularly convincing. He needed back-to-back three-set matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals against opponents ranked outside the Top 60. After winning on Sunday he reportedly flew back to Switzerland to celebrate an early birthday for his twin boys and arrived in Madrid on Tuesday. His early loss means he will likely play next week's Italian Open in Rome, which he hinted he might skip if he had a deep run in Madrid.
Serena survives a scare to move on in Madrid
Playing in their first meeting in over a year, Azarenka played her best match of the season against Serena to put herself in the lead multiple times, only to lose. She held a commanding 5-1 lead over Serena in the first set tiebreaker and lost six consecutive points. Then, after she forced a third set, battled back from a break down and saved match point, Azarenka found herself a point from victory as she served at 6-5, 40-0. Serena saved the first two match points with some big hitting, but on her third match point, Azarenka served what she thought was an ace. The ball was barely out but she took the time to walk up to the net, stare at the mark and let her mind wander. It was all downhill from there. She served three consecutive double-faults to hand the break over to Serena and then won just one point in the decisive tiebreaker.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Azarenka. Twice this season she has pushed the top players hard (she lost a tough match to Sharapova at Indian Wells) only to buckle. But Wednesday's match against Serena was a much-needed reminder of how great the Serena-Azarenka rivarly is and why we love watching these two battle it out. The contrast in styles makes for great tennis: Serena's serve vs. Vika's return; Serena's power vs. Vika's counterpunching; the overall battle for the baseline and court positioning. The fact that Serena's long-time hitting partner and confidant Sascha Bajin is now on Azarenka's team just adds to the intrigue. Azarenka has always proven herself a worthy rival and test for Serena. She just needs more matches to round out her confidence in the tight moments.
Sharapova faces Wozniacki in the quarterfinals
How will Sharapova recover for her next match against an in-form Wozniacki after grinding away for over two-and-a-half hours to get past Garcia? Wozniacki had no problem getting past Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, winning 6–3, 6–2 in 82 minutes. Sharapova has not lost a set to Wozniacki on clay and leads their overall head-to-head –4. But this is a new version of the Dane on clay and she'll come into Thursday's match with confidence after winning their last two meetings. This could be a watershed match for Wozniacki if she pull off the upset.
Isner rolls on, Suarez Navarro takes down Ivanovic
American John Isner booked a spot in the third round and a date with Kyrgios after a 7–6(5), 6–7 (11), 6–1 win over Thomaz Belluci. Rafael Nadal cruised by Steve Johnson in 74 minutes to win 6–4, 6–3. On the women's side, Ana Ivanovic took Carla Suarez Navarro to three sets on Wednesday after losing the first, but the No. 10-seeded Spainaird pulled out the win in the end, beating No. 7 Ivanovic 7–5, 1–6, 6–4 in just over two hours.