MELBOURNE, Australia — Roger Federer has packed up the family, the nannies and his hopes for this year’s Australian Open and flown off to Zurich or Dubai or wherever Federers fly off to this time of year.
Novak Djokovic had the day off. Rafael Nadal played in the heat of the afternoon and made quick work of Kevin Anderson.
So the night session on Sunday was left to other, less decorated men and frankly, if this is the future, sign me up.
This was a two-ring tennis circus.
Ring one was Hisense Arena, where a grounds pass got you a seat (if you could find one) and where Nick Kyrgios, the 19-year-old Australian, was fighting his demons and Andreas Seppi and ended up beating them both in five sets after rallying from two sets down and saving a match point.
Ring two was Rod Laver Arena, where Andy Murray, seeded only 6th this year, was doing advanced geometry with Grigor Dimitrov, with both men conjuring angles and parabolas that lesser craftsmen lack the tools or the guts to create.
When the last drop shot had been sliced and the last racket had been smashed (or in Dimitrov’s case, obliterated) Murray was the winner 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 7-5, and he was soon answering questions about his Tuesday date in the quarterfinals with Kyrgios.
Britain vs Australia has sold a lot of tickets through the years, but the rivalry has seldom been at its most intense in tennis. This quarterfinal could be the start of something deeper. After a long dormant phase, the Aussies are rising again, and Kyrgios — nicknamed “The Wild Thing” with good reason — is not just a special talent. He has the sort of animal magnetism and raw ambition that draws you in and keeps you there to find out just what he might do, mutter or throw next.
“He’s dangerous; he’s unpredictable; he’s entertaining,” Murray said.
Kyrgios is a showman in a very different way than Federer, whose elegant strokes and mannerisms keep you at an admiring distance. Kyrgios is prickly and profane but also hell-bent on ensuring that both he and his audience avoid boredom.
It can be explosive (a full-rip forehand when normal speed would suffice). It can be whimsical (a ball bounced off his forehead before a serve).
But it is often not family fare. Kyrgios might have the foulest mouth in tennis since Murray was a self-loathing teenager, and the Australian was using one particular four-letter word as a noun, verb and adjective on Sunday.
If chair umpire Fergus Murphy had better hearing or had applied the letter of the tennis law, Kyrgios could have been disqualified for three code-of-conduct violations on the first Sunday: just as John McEnroe was 25 years ago in the same round of the 1990 Australian Open.
Instead, Kyrgios got just one warning after spiking his racket when he lost the first set. But there was plenty more negative energy as well as energy, period, on display.
“What we’re seeing tonight is not really all that unusual,” said Todd Woodbridge, the Australian who was one of the all-time great doubles players and was part of the developmental team at Tennis Australia when Kyrgios was on his way up. “Nick chastises himself a lot when things aren’t going his way. I watched a lot of his play through juniors. This is his way of trying to use energy to get himself out of a losing situation.”
Australia’s past tennis stars, who are legion, have been taking turns advising and lecturing Kyrgios on his comportment and focus, but they are also struggling to contain their excitement.
“He’s still learning where to channel nerves and expectation early in matches,” Woodbridge said. “But when he is in the deep heart of a battle, he is the one who can come up with the shots. He isn’t scared to win.”
He is the real deal, as Kyrgios proved at Wimbledon last year by upsetting Nadal and reaching the quarterfinals and as he has now confirmed here by reaching the final eight in Melbourne.
Kyrgios, who will turn 20 in April, is the first Australian man to reach this stage of the Australian Open since Lleyton Hewittt in 2005, and he is the first male teenager since Federer in 2001 to have reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals.
“He has a big game; he has the big flair for the big situation and if he keeps going this way, he’s clearly going to be a big, big star,” said Jim Courier, the former world No. 1, in commentary for Australia’s Channel 7. “We wondered who might carry the baton for this sport once the big four move along. Nick Kyrgios has put his hand up in the air and said, ‘I just may be one of those guys.’ You never know. You can’t be sure, but he is as exciting as any young player we’ve seen in a long, long time.”
There are, naturally caveats, and one of them is that Kyrgios already has back problems at age 19. Another is his ability to cope with the kind of mania in evidence on Sunday night. He is an Australian, but he also crosses a few borders with his mixed Greek-Malaysian background and there were flags of both those nations along with Australia’s being waved in Hisense.
It is an arena that usually feels sterile with the court a long way from the stands, and it has been downgraded — with the completion of the roof on Margaret Court Arena — to the third most important court at the Open. But it was the place to be on Sunday, with fans in possession of general admission tickets lining up for a look at the teenager.
Grand Slam tennis might not have seen this sort of raucous atmosphere since the People’s Monday at Wimbledon in 2001 when Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia beat Patrick Rafter of Australia in a final that had been delayed by rain from the previous day.
For a sport with an aging audience in many markets, the good news was that a lot of those in the lower rows on Sunday were children (the bad news is that they were also within earshot of Kyrgios’s soliloquies).
Still, it was a masterstroke — the perfect marriage of match and venue — from tournament director Craig Tiley, who has been the target of some criticism in Australia for his globally minded scheduling so far this year.
The tennis itself was not too shabby either as Kyrgios reeled in Seppi, the Italian veteran who had ambushed Federer in the third round.
To manage it, Kyrgios had to save a match point on his serve at 5-6, ad-out in the fourth set and then shrug off the loss of a 4-1 lead in the fifth. But he eventually closed out the victory 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 8-6, by breaking Seppi at love.
He fell onto his back on the court with the arena quaking around him, and the noise rumbled across the grounds to Laver Arena where Murray, mid match, asked his team what the ruckus was all about.
He should not have been surprised. Murray is both a student and fan of the game and has been following Kyrgios’ progress and even tweeting updates and compliments.
But Murray, after a frustrating season by his standards in 2014, also looks lean and particularly hungry again. He needed most of his tricks to wriggle free of Dimitrov, the spectacular Bulgarian shot-maker who clearly has improved physically but remains just a bit brittle mentally.
Murray already knows he can beat Kyrgios. He routed him, 6-2, 6-2, in the second round in Toronto on a hardcourt last year, and with his remarkable defensive skills and ability to absorb pace and reboot rallies, he could very well rout the youngster again in Melbourne.
But whatever the score-line and whatever the court on Tuesday, Australia now has a next-generation player that demands your attention. You might like him. You might not. But once you get a look, it’s hard to tear yourself away.