As Nick Kyrgios produced a performance as sparkling as the necklace he wore reflecting the big city lights of New York on Monday night, it was difficult to believe he felt disconcerted. The Australian performed with a sizzle ideal for a historic occasion, playing with the panache of a matinee idol in complete control of the silver screen in his clash against Thanasi Kokkinakis.
The pending retirement of Serena Williams had drawn a record crowd to the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre and the opening act in the farewell to an American icon drew rave reviews. Routinely a showstopper for performances straying from the sublime to surreal, Kyrgios was instead cast as the best supporting actor for the most stellar of New York opening nights.
The 23rd seed played the role perfectly, deploying his vast repertoire in a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) triumph without overshadowing the star attraction, even in the fashion stakes. As shimmering as the Canberran’s necklace was, it too played second fiddle to the ensemble worn by Williams, who danced on to Arthur Ashe Stadium sporting diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
It is now seven years since Kyrgios shared equal billing with Williams on a billboard attached to a building in the borough of Queens, positioned to capture the attention of the tens of thousands of fans heading to Flushing Meadows and the workers commuting into Manhattan on the daily grind. Such was the box office appeal of Kyrgios, who had reached quarter-finals at Wimbledon and Melbourne Park in the 14 months leading into the 2015 US Open, he appeared destined to become the prime-time idol on Arthur Ashe Arena that Williams has proven for 25 years.
With his recent run to the final at Wimbledon, and the consistency of his performances since sliding briefly out of the top 100 earlier this year, he might yet provide more than a cameo or two on this grand court. Watching Williams from the players lounge as she defeated Danka Kovinić prior to the clash with his boyhood mate, Kyrgios said it was impossible not to be inspired by the queen of tennis.
“Just the buzz that she brought, you know, breaking history with the amount of people watching and buying tickets, it is incredible,” he said. “That is my goal, to grow the sport as much as I can. Hopefully Serena can keep going and I can keep going as well. To play one of my … best friends after Serena’s possible last match, with a record-breaking attendance, it’s insane. A night I’m never going to forget. My 200th win as well. It was good.”
Despite the significance of the stage, there was a bittersweet element to this meeting. Back in 2013, when Kyrgios edged his younger compatriot to win the Australian Open boys’ title, it seemed probable the pair would become regular combatants vying for major titles. They moved like young giraffes, their legs still spindly and their bodies yet to fully mature, but already it was apparent from their serves and forehands that they were talents to watch.
Roger Federer was among those to take note. He invited both on an overseas trip to train with him. The sponsors had pounced on the pair well before that junior final in Melbourne. The transition for junior success to senior stardom is difficult, but both Australians started their careers extremely well. Both have taken down the Swiss superstar. But the pair have also endured more than their fair share of physical and mental setbacks.
There have been high points, no more so than the Australian Open doubles crown they shared in January, but tennis has truly tested them both. They had played before in the minors when still kids, but Monday night was their first outing against each other as men. And while Kyrgios handled it better, it was a difficult experience for both of them.
“Our lockers are next to each other [and] I walked over to the Thanasi and said, ‘Look, that was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt on a tennis court’,” Kyrgios said. “We’ve been through some things together when I was really struggling. He was always supportive. I room with him. He always cared. I’ve seen him be resilient through all his injuries. We just have respect off the court, which trumps everything on the court. But it was really uncomfortable. I don’t want to do that again, to be honest.”
Kokkinakis turns his focus to the doubles and has to wait another year for a chance to post a deep grand slam run that Kyrgios and several others are convinced he can manage. His conqueror now faces Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi on Wednesday and Kyrgios expressed his fatigue with touring again when speaking after midnight in New York.
But in a city where he has sparked his share of controversy, the Wimbledon finalist now senses opportunity. “It is just another challenge that I have to deal with. Last stop here before home, so … let’s see what we can do here,” he said.