Nadal Praises Kyrgios After Thrilling Australian Open Match
There were none of the expected fireworks, just compelling tennis, as Rafael Nadal ended Nick Kyrgios' gallant Australian Open campaign with an enthralling four-set, fourth-round victory at Melbourne Park.
The so-called grudge match of the Open was instead played out in good spirits between the two feuding rivals, as Nadal prevailed 6-3 3-6 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (7-4) in a high-quality encounter on Monday night.
The Australian started sluggishly, dropping serve in the fourth game as Nadal parcelled up the opening set in 36 minutes.
Saturday night's four-hour, 26-minute epic against Karen Khachanov, the longest match of Kyrgios's career, looked to have taken a toll.
He had to stave off three more break points in the opening game of the second set, before suddenly exploding to life.
The fist-pumping underdog leapt into the air in jubilation after breaking Nadal with an inch-perfect lob and surging to a 4-1 lead.
The advantage was enough for Kyrgios to level the match at one set apiece.
Fighting desperately to become the first Australian to conquer the top seed at Melbourne Park since Mark Philippoussis brought down Pete Sampras in 1996, Kyrgios threw his body at everything as the pair went toe to toe.
But there wasn't a hint of bad blood, Nadal even giving Kyrgios the thumbs up at one point when the gallant home hope lay prone on Rod Laver Arena after an exhausting 24-shot rally.
Kyrgios saved his best serve for a linesperson, furiously questioning the umpire why the official was laughing after getting a call wrong that Kyrgios successfully challenged.
"It's not a game, it's not a joke," he yelled.
"Why are you laughing?"
He saved his worst serve for the pivotal third-set tiebreaker, gifting Nadal a set point with a wild double-fault.
Nadal incredibly returned the favour, only for Kyrgios to net a backhand to hand the top seed the set.
The writing seemed on the wall when he dropped serve for a second time to fall behind 3-1 in the fourth set.
But he made one last stand, breaking Nadal when the Spaniard served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set.
It was merely a stay of execution, Nadal again holding his nerve in the breaker to advance to his 41st grand slam quarter-final after three hours and 38 minutes.
The pair have a prickly history, but Nadal only had praise for Kyrgios after the match.
"When he is playing like today with this positive factor, he gives a lot of positive things to our sport," Nadal told John McEnroe.
"I encourage him to keep working like that, because he is one of the highest talents."
Before the match started, a tearful Kyrgios honoured Kobe Bryant in a touching tribute as he walked on to the court.
LA Lakers hero Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed when their helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff on Sunday.
Kyrgios, whose love of the NBA is well-known, honoured one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen by wearing a #8 LA Lakers jersey to walk on to Rod Laver Arena.
The Australian Open also paid tribute to Bryant with a video played to the crowd before the players walked out.
Kyrgios was in tears as he walked on to the court, and sat on the player's chair for sometime before warming up.
The gesture by Kyrgios is particularly poignant considering the Australian tennis player is a passionate fan of the Boston Celtics -- a bitter rival of the Lakers.
Kyrgios spoke about his love for the Celtics in a piece he wrote for The Players' Tribune, titled 'Why I Bleed Green' in May 2016.
"I own like a dozen Celtics jerseys, but I’ve never even been to the Garden in my life. I’ve never even been to Boston, truthfully, " he said.
"My love for the Boston Celtics came from video games."
Nadal's will have a quarter-final meeting on Wednesday with fifth seed Dominic Thiem in what will be a sequel to the past two French Open finals won by the Spaniard.
Other tennis stars have also shared their memories of Bryant in heartfelt posts on social media.
Naomi Osaka has also paid tribute to her "big bro".
"Thank you for randomly texting me, 'You ok?', cause you know how f*cked up my head is sometimes," she said in a Twitter tribute to Bryant.
"Thank you for teaching me so much in the short time in the short time I've been lucky to know you."
Bryant sat with Osaka's team while she played at the U.S. Open last year.
Novak Djokovic has also paid tribute to a "great mentor and friend".
"Thank you for being there for me and inspiring the entire world," he said.
"Thank you for showing all of us athletes how to compete and respect sport."