INDIAN WELLS – From the day of the men’s singles draw less than a week ago, many eyes were focused on blockbuster potential early-round matchups between established stars that threatened to set the BNP Paribas Open on fire from early in the week.
Novak Djokovic vs. Juan Martin del Potro in the third round. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal – a rematch of the Australian Open final – in the fourth round.
But buried in the “quarter of death”, as that section of the 2017 men’s draw came to be called, was the first career meeting between two youngsters who a decade from now might be exactly where these champions are right now.
And so it was that Nick Kyrgios of Australia and Alexander Zverev of Germany met for the first first time in their young careers. And, appropriately, while the current champions battled it out in the main stadium, they met in Stadium 2 – a mini-replica of the big stage but, of course, not the big stage.
(They met once as juniors, in the Wimbledon warmup tournament at Roehampton, a match that easily went Kyrgios’ way).
Almost exactly two years apart with Kyrgios the elder at 21, both are already in the top 20. And if the 6-3, 6-4 win by Kyrgios sets their early career head-to-head at 1-0 for him, it may in no way presage the tenor of the many matchups to come.
“It was the worst match I played all year. It’s quite simple. My serving was absolutely horrible, my returning was absolutely horrible. From the baseline was horrible. There is not one thing I did well,” Zverev said afterwards. “It was just that kind of day.”
It didn’t seem that bad from Zverev’s side, although at 48 percent his first-serve percentage wasn’t nearly enough. Part of that pressure came from Kyrgios, who took the 130-plus mile-an-hour offerings from his opponent and returned many of them as though they were no big deal at all.
Already, their styles seem set. Zverev will be be the elegant one, the lanky, gliding star with the pitch-perfect technique, already a complete player in the making but in that textbook kind of way with few surprises.
Kyrgios, perhaps blessed with even more talent – and that’s a high threshold – is always going to be the unpredictable one, but the one who already creates shot sequences (dropshot-backhand lob winner combinations for one) out of his fertile mind, on the spot, in a precocious way. That kind of tennis mind, you can’t teach. He creates between-the-legs volleys in the same spontaneous way, which only adds to his unpredictability even if the success rate isn’t golden.
“I think there were some points where everyone enjoyed it. I thought he was playing some great shots. The crowd enjoyed. You know, I was enjoying it. There was obviously a lot of pressure. I thought at times we both looked a bit nervous – fair enough, with everything going on, a lot of expectations,” said Kyrgios, whose performance in the press conference room after the match was equally first-rate.
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Kyrgios has been in great spirits so far in the desert – the presence of girlfriend and fellow player Ajla Tomljanovic until a couple of days ago no doubt a contributing factor. He’s also playing some quality tennis.
“I don’t think I served that well today, actually. I felt – I wasn’t serving my best, so I thought I just competed well,” he said. “It was always going to be a tough match. He’s been playing great tennis and on the rise ever since juniors. I knew it was going to be tough. … I’m just really glad to get through.”
There was a moment when it all could have gone off the rails, as Kyrgios took issue with chair umpire Cédric Mourier’s failure to overrule a fairly obvious out ball – on set point, no less. Kyrgios had to challenge, and he won it. But he felt, on principle – with Kyrgios, there’s often a principle – that he shouldn’t have had to.
He muttered about it through the set break and again at the break after the third game of the second set. He dropped a couple of profanities and got an audible obscenity warning that earned him a few boos from the crowd.
“I’m trying my hardest, and I shouldn’t have to deal with that s..t,” was one pithy quote.
But it didn’t escalate and, crucially for Kyrgios, it didn’t affect his play. He was steadfast, appreciating the hot weather for the extra bounce he got on his forehand because of it, and never giving Zverev an opening to make a tight contest of it.
“Ultimately, it was a good match. He’s going to beat me plenty of times in his career, I think. I’m going to beat him. It’s going to … that’s how it’s going to be,” Kyrgios said.
Next up is Novak Djokovic, whom Kyrgios beat less than two weeks ago in Acapulco by serving out of his mind, late at night, in the first-ever match between the two. This time, because both are still alive in the doubles, it will be a mid-afternoon match Wednesday.
This time, it will be in the big stadium.