Both Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios have punched tickets for the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Australian Open. That fact has caused me to revisit their match at Wimbledon last year even though they still each have to win to set up a sequel. Their Wimbledon match was not the match of the year by any measure. However, it is the 2014 match that most interested me.
Some generational matches are full of ill will a la Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors’ US Open tilts in the late 80s not to mention their more recent biographical battles. Other generational matches present a sense of continuity as was the case in Roger Federer’s 2001 Wimbledon upset of defending champion Pete Sampras. Federer had a ponytail at the time, but his play in that match mirrored Sampras’. Roger’s evolution beyond that template was still 2 or 3 years into the future. Kyrgios vs Nadal was not full of spite or admiration. Rather, it gave me a glimpse of what the eventual changing of the guard will look like.
Rafa’s sui generis play served warning to established tennis norms
Rafael Nadal – Forever Young?
Rafael Nadal meeting Nick Kyrgios struck me as a less acrimonious version of Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain meeting at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Rafa and Kyrgios have a few things aesthetically in common, but in many ways they are creatures from different eras. The majority of Rafael Nadal’s career has been marked as being the challenger, and a very successful one at that. Rafa has played the role of smiling revolutionary for several reasons. First, Roger Federer, whose peers include Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero, is almost 5 years older than Rafa but has never left the top tier of tennis during Rafa’s career. Many tennis fans either like or dislike Federer for his regal demeanor. Rafa had a promising 2004 and rocketed into the top tier of tennis in 2005 all while wearing shorts associated with clam digging, hitting a buggy whip forehand, and wearing a muscle shirt. For many years, Federer was the establishment, and the younger Rafa was the revolutionary. In 2008, this all came to head in the classic Wimbledon final won by Nadal.
Little if anything in all of sport is as good as this was
Chasing Roger from 2005-2007 helped make Rafa an eternal upstart, but so too have Rafa’s injuries. Rafa has posted excellent years from 2005-2014. There is no reason to think 2015 won’t be an excellent campaign as well. Still, Rafa ceded the #1 ranking back to Roger in 2009. He then had his best year in 2010 only to have Nole take over in 2011. Roger even reclaimed the #1 ranking for a portion of 2012. Rafa again claimed #1 with a dominating 2013, but his 3 years of dominance required toppling a number one and then entailed losing that number one ranking the next year. Taking the tour over on 3 occasions makes Rafa a highly successful revolutionary, and revolutions tend to be associated with youth.
Kyrgios Gave a Glimpse of the Future
At Wimbledon 2014, Nick Kyrgios walked onto court against Rafael Nadal wearing Beats by Dre, artistic kinesio tape, and a substantial gold chain. Kyrgios, as Nadal has always done, exuded supreme athleticism on court, but he played with a fluid power that showcased what a player who grew up watching the retrieving and returning skills of Rafa, Nole, and Murray might need to do in order to dictate play. Kyrgios clearly had no interest in a war of attrition akin to what is often seen between Rafa and Nole. He hit a ridiculous array of aces and huge ground strokes preventing Rafa from imposing his preferred patterns of play.* Kyrgios sent the message that a set of players building on this prototype will eventually take over tennis.
Look at the 6:55 to 7:05 mark to see what I am getting at
It is unlikely that any one player of the next wave will be as accomplished as Nadal has been. However, as Bruce Lee once said “running water never grows stale so you’ve got to keep on flowing.” Tennis’ constantly arriving future is the one opponent no generation defeats. For a few hours at Wimbledon in 2014, Nick Kyrgios made Rafael look like the palace guard. That is noteworthy given that Nadal had been breaking down the gates seeking to conquer or reconquer the kingdom of tennis for a decade. I remember that match so vividly because for one day the eternal revolutionary was the ancien régime.
* – A similar dynamic was present when Jerzy Janowicz won the first set of his 2013 Wimbledon semifinal vs. Andy Murray by hitting second serves above the 120 mph mark. Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic’s defensive skills may spawn, via the tennis arms race, players routinely hitting winners that were unthinkable a decade ago. Still, I think Jerzy has less talent than Kyrgios. Also, Jerzy ultimately lost this match, and Murray has not been the alpha male on tour. Therefore, the Kyrgios-Nadal match stands out to me as the first big warning sent by the coming generation.