World number one Rafael Nadal weathered a fierce storm from gutsy showman Nick Kyrgios Monday to set up an Australian Open quarter-final against Dominic Thiem and keep alive his quest for a 20th Grand Slam title.
The Spanish top seed came through a riveting clash on Rod Laver Arena 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (8/6), 7-6 (7/4) to end the gallant hopes of the basketball-mad Australian, who came on the court wearing an LA Lakers shirt in honour of Kobe Bryant.
He will now face fifth seed Thiem after the Austrian swept past Gael Monfils 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
“What can I say about Nick? When he is playing like today with this positive attitude he gives a lot of positive things to our sport,” said Nadal, the 2009 champion who is looking to match Roger Federer’s record 20 Slam crowns.
“He’s one of the highest talents we have on our tour and I like the Nick Kyrgios during the whole of this tournament.”
“I just feel happy that I won one more match tonight, an important one,” he added.
It was billed as a grudge match after a series of bad-tempered exchanges last year when Nadal accused Kyrgios of lacking respect and the Australian fired back that the Spaniard was “super salty”.
But Kyrgios struck a conciliatory tone beforehand, calling Nadal “a hell of a player”, and it was played with respect from both sides.
There was little to split them on paper, with Nadal leading their career head-to-head 4-3 but Kyrgios 2-1 up on hardcourts and an even 1-1 in their Grand Slam matches, both at Wimbledon.
The second of those, last year, was a torrid affair, with Kyrgios ranting at the umpire, serving underarm and deliberately firing a forehand at the Spaniard.
The Australian walked out on Rod Laver Arena wearing a yellow Bryant singlet as a mark of respect to the legend who tragically died in a helicopter crash, and a short video tribute was shown.
Both held their opening service games before Nadal got a break in game four.
He was reading Kyrgios’ monster serve well and getting returns back over the net.
Kyrgios began talking to himself, never a good sign so early in the match, and with Nadal too strong from the back of the court he comfortably took the set.
But the Australian calmed down and crucially held his opening second set service game in a 10-minute slog, and as his boisterous fans got behind him he broke Nadal with a looping forehand, punching the air in delight for a 3-1 lead.
Feeding off the crowd energy, he sealed the set with an ace.
Kyrgios was enjoying himself, grinning and applauding Nadal as the pair played some mesmerising rallies in a high-quality third set.
But he began unravelling at 6-5 down, becoming irritated with a line judge and telling the umpire: “We’re giving 130 per cent and he can’t get line calls right. It’s embarrassing.”
And when Kyrgios went 3-1 down in the tie-breaker, he slammed his racquet, leaving it a mangled mess.
Then at 5-5 in the tie-break Kyrgios double-faulted, giving Nadal a set point. In bizarre scenes, the Spaniard responded by double-faulting himself before finally taking the set, furiously pumping his fists.
Kyrgios appeared spent and was broken to love for Nadal to take 2-1 fourth-set lead, and the Spaniard appeared headed for the finish line.
But he amazingly sent down a double fault when serving for the match to give Kyrgios a break point and it again went to a tie-break, where Nadal finally sealed the victory.