MELBOURNE - Explosive Australian met electric Bulgarian on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night (Jan 21) and the result was high-voltage tennis involving a mere 140 winners. Nick Kyrgios produced a first-serve average of 201kmh and hit forehands that didn't land as much as detonate. Grigor Dimitrov wielded his racket deftly but it's what he does as an athlete which is truly extraordinary.
He returned enough serves, retrieved so many balls that he forced errors and then he ran down the Australian 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4) in three hours and 26 minutes. Then both men met at the net and had a long conversation. "I just told him to believe in himself," said Kyrgios. It was a night of speed, shouting, spirit and a singular stat. At the end, Kyrgios had won 156 points, Dimitrov 157.
Dimitrov is No. 3 in the world, the ATP Finals champion and is out to confirm he is an altered player. A work in creative, consistent progress. On Sunday, he certainly was. When it mattered, in the three crucial tie-breakers, against a better server, he was the better player. Indeed, the Bulgarian had nine break points all match and Kyrgios only five and he won 81 per cent of first serve points and the Australian 79 per cent.
The Bulgarian was shaken when he failed to serve out the match at 5-3 in the fourth set and yet rebounded to win the tie-breaker. But then momentum was changing hands as frequently all match like luck at a card table. If anything, Dimitrov just looked a trifle more composed and it showed in his unforced errors: he had 27, Kyrgios had 56.
Kyrgios is ranked 14 places lower but he has cultured hands, muscle and last night, the crowd. They embraced him, cajoled him, lifted him and occasionally cheered his rival's double faults. Yet it was never mean. "There was a great atmosphere tonight," said Dimitrov.
People want to like Kyrgios, they want to see some of his personality and all of his tennis, and on Sunday, they weren't disappointed. The Australian has grown a slightly thicker skin and it's harder for people and life to easily get underneath it.
Of course with him, calm is a relative concept: He still muttered, chatted to the umpire, tried out a few monologues, berated his box, sent a ball high into the crowd, reprimanded a fan, but he harmed no one nor himself. He was colourful not chaotic and wonderfully complimentary of his rival in a very thoughtful press conference.
"I think with him," said Kyrgios, "he hasn't even found his best form yet and he's still getting through all those matches, which is pretty frightening. I think once he finds his feet and he has more confidence, he's got a real chance at winning it."
Sometimes with his towel in his teeth and head down, Kyrgios looks the reluctant hero. But inadvertently or not, he puts on a show, eliciting whistles and wonder as he pummels 151kmh forehand returns, composes soft drop shots and charges to the net, all done with the occasionally bored face of a guy who is picking lint from his jacket.
Asked what it was like to face this unpredictability, Dimitrov simply said: "Frustrating".
The Australian served up a a hurricane in the first set - 208kmh and 210 were his first two serves and then once a second serve at 203. You know, just for fun. Why else play tennis? Yet in the first tie-breaker he had only a single ace, two second serves and a double fault. In the second set tie-breaker, the man with 36 aces in the match, again had only one.
In the third set, he just seemed looser, hit curling forehands, winning it 6-4 but he could never completely rattle Dimitrov. It just looked like two gifted players, both trying to make a name, in urgent combat but with one slightly if clearly ahead on the learning curve. As the Bulgarian said when asked what he learnt about himself: "I can switch to another gear when I need it."
The Australian has confirmed he is growing up, the Bulgarian has proved he is more than mere potential. In the quarter-finals, he plays Kyle Edmund, who he defeated in Brisbane recently, and the Brit will know the Bulgarian's plan: Dimitrov will simply try and run him out of town.