MELBOURNE, Australia — The Nick Kyrgios Experience was in full effect against Dominic Thiem, from the underarm ace that successfully closed the second set to the around-the-back, between-the-legs miss that ceded the third and so much more – to the delight of the Australian Open’s last spectators for a while.
Kyrgios, a 25-year-old Australian who is part showman and part sideshow, had a grand ol’ time while he was off to a perfect start, egging on a rowdy, partisan crowd and building a two-set lead in the third round Friday against No. 3 seed Thiem, the reigning U.S. Open champion and last year’s runner-up at Melbourne Park.
Not surprisingly, the talented and tempestuous Kyrgios was decidedly less amused after his level of play dipped, resulting in a tossed racket, his customary sort of back-and-forth with the chair umpire, a couple of warnings that resulted in a point penalty – and, eventually, a 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Thiem.
“The energy out there was special,” said Kyrgios, who sat out nearly all of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and is ranked 47th. “To produce that level and go toe-to-toe with one of the best players in the world, I’m pretty proud. I left it all out there. … He’s so disciplined. He’s so composed. His level doesn’t drop.”
At Flushing Meadows last September, Thiem became the first man in 71 years to come back to win the final after dropping the first two sets, so this was nothing new for him.
“That match showed me … that giving up is never an option. There is always a chance,” said Thiem, who faces Grigor Dimitrov next. “Today, I was so close to losing.”
In calm contrast to the ever-animated Kyrgios, Thiem reserved his displays of emotion to a simple shake of a raised right fist that marked his break to go up 4-3 in the fifth set and then the last point.
This was Kyrgios’ second consecutive five-setter at 10,500-capacity John Cain Arena; in the previous round, he erased two match points en route to eliminating No. 29 Ugo Humbert.
This time, he was the one who blew a lead, which could have been even more significant, had he not wasted a pair of break points at the start of the third set.
Thiem’s mindset there?
“I was dealing with the loss already,” he said.
The stadium was about three-quarters full Friday; many in attendance were not mindful of being socially distant or wearing the masks that were to become mandatory at midnight for the state of Victoria. The state government has imposed a five-day lockdown because of an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
While competition at the tournament can continue, no spectators will be allowed as of Saturday.
“Tonight was epic,” Thiem said, “and a good last match before the lockdown.”
So with one last night out for the time being, folks were living their best lives.
They sang at changeovers, while Kyrgios sipped from a soda can. They jumped and screamed at Kyrgios’ winners. They pounded the backs of seats. They cheered Thiem’s mistakes. They booed close line calls that went against Kyrgios – even though such decisions are determined by an automated system of cameras, not line judges, at this event.
“I think Thiem, actually, drew some energy from everyone kind of against him,” Kyrgios said.
The spectacle started during the warmup, when Kyrgios – wearing a beige sleeve on his left leg – paused his practice serves to wave his racket and ask his fellow Aussies to get louder. They obliged, of course, eliciting a big grin from their guy.
When Kyrgios broke serve in the match’s initial game, he hopped in delight and relished the cascading cheers, cupping his right hand on his ear to again implore for more – and, again, they complied.
His first game featured an underarm serve and a between-the-legs half-volley, neither of which worked – nor were they the last of those tricks he would try.
When Thiem pushed a forehand out to get broken and trail 5-4 in the second, Kyrgios yelled “Let’s go, baby!” as he strutted to the changeover. When the underarm ace ended the set, Kyrgios stretched his arms wide, as if to say, “Are you not entertained?”
Later, he questioned the loss of a point on a hindrance call, saying that his yell was no louder or more distracting to his opponent than other players’ grunts.