Roger Federer’s brilliance is indisputable, a constant through his 20 Grand Slam singles championships and his record 310 weeks atop the world rankings. He’s graceful, disciplined, a statesman for the sport. “He’s the ultimate role model to anyone who wants to play,” Nick Kyrgios said, his admiration undimmed after his 6-4, 6-1, 7-5 loss to Federer on Saturday in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Kyrgios’ brilliance is mercurial, dished out in small doses between tantrums and controversies but undeniable and intriguing. He has an appealing personality and can have a great career if he wants it, but that little word “if” has been a big issue. “I have been around for about four years now. I have barely done anything. I think I can do a lot more,” the 23-year-old Australian said with admirable self-awareness.
With any luck for him and for tennis, the up-close-and-personal view he got of Federer’s performance and demeanor Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium will set Kyrgios on a smarter, steadier path.
Federer was purposeful and efficient in reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the 17th straight time, amassing 51 winners and capturing 21 of 25 net points but also pulling off an incredible around-the-net-post shot in the third set that opened Kyrgios’ eyes comically wide in utter disbelief. When Kyrgios indulged in his habit of going for fancy shots, Federer made him pay. “Make him hit that one extra ball, because when you play like this, it can also work against you,” Federer said. “Today I think he didn’t come up with the good when he really had to and I was good, I think, by making him hit that extra shot. Things worked well for me today.”
Serving at 3-3 and love-40 in the seventh game of the first set, Federer saved two break points and won the 18-shot rally when Kyrgios returned a shot wide. Although it was early, that proved to be the turning point. “I had the chances and I didn’t take them. Against Roger you’re not going to get many,” Kyrgios said.
Federer was honest when asked what he sees when he looks across the net at Kyrgios. “An unpredictable player with an enormous serve, who can just turn it on whenever he wants to do it,” Federer said.
Kyrgios has to want to turn that switch on more often, though, and he must develop and sustain that fire himself. Kyrgios is skilled enough to have ranked as high as 13th in the world late in 2016 and early in 2017, and he’s smart and likeable. In his second-round match here, when chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani went to the unusual extreme of descending to the court to plead with Kyrgios to be more engaged, it was because Lahyani has seen Kyrgios’ potential and he doesn’t want Kyrgios to waste it. And he’s far from the only person in the sport to feel that way.
Kyrgios didn’t get a pep talk from the umpire Saturday. Seeing Federer’s excellence and class should have been motivation enough for Kyrgios to start taking stock of where he is and where he might end up.
Maybe that process has begun. “I get told a lot, ‘What do you want from your career?’ ” Kyrgios said after his loss to Federer. “I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied with my career. I think there is a lot more to be done and there is a lot more to be explored. I want to achieve more in the sport.”
At one point in the first set Kyrgios did a pretty fair imitation of Federer’s serve. Cheeky? Disrespectful? Federer laughed it off, saying that Kyrgios had done the same throughout their warmup for a match in Stuttgart, Germany, earlier this year. “He’s been using my serve sometimes to great effect, which I’m very happy to see. It’s a technique that worked,” Federer said, adding that he was joking.
Copying Federer’s serve is fine. Copying his constancy in training and grace under pressure would be more useful for Kyrgios. “I think we’re two different characters,” Kyrgios said, “just the way he goes about things. I could take a leaf out of his book.”
Take a chapter. Take the whole book. But take it soon.
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