When a 19-year-old 144th-ranked Nick Kyrgios stunned Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, it was a major turning point in the Aussie’s career.
The next time Kyrgios took on Nadal, it was on clay in Rome in 2016 and he took the first set and pushed the Spaniard all the way deep into a third before surrendering.
On Thursday, the pair face-off for a third time, this time on Nadal’s home court in Madrid, and Kyrgios is bracing himself for a tricky last-16 encounter.
The world No20 may have a strong history against Nadal and the faster surfaces in Madrid, due to the city’s altitude, will favour his big serve and power game but Kyrgios insists that Wimbledon match is long gone in his mind.
“I don’t really think about that match anymore to be honest,” he told Sport360.
“I was young, I was playing Rafa on what I think is his worst surface – he’s won Wimbledon before but it’s by far his worst surface.
“But yeah I guess that sort of broke everything open for me. That’s when I really thought I could believe that I could beat those top guys and then really do something in the sport.
“But I think his confidence level on clay is much higher than it is on the grass courts for sure.”
Since that famous Wimbledon win, Kyrgios has gone on two make two grand slam quarter-finals, he won three titles and peaked at No13 in the world.
Asked how differently he feels now compared to that teenager who shocked the All England Club three years ago, he said: “I was very young back then, didn’t really have much perspective. I thought tennis was the be all and end all in the world. And now it’s just a game we play and there’s a lot of other important things that happen and in the scheme of things it’s not really that important.
“That’s where I’ve come – it took me two years to learn that. Obviously I’m still excited to play – obviously to play him in front of his home crowd is something special.”
Kyrgios advanced to the third round thanks to an impressive 6-3, 6-3 victory over American Ryan Harrison, in a contest that lasted just 58 minutes. The Aussie dropped just four points on his first serve, five on his second, and saved the sole break point he faced.
There is no love lost between the pair after Harrison had an on-court row with Kyrgios’ compatriot Thanasi Kokkinakis in Cincinnati in 2015, where the American said: “Wawrinka should’ve decked Kyrgios, and I should deck that kid.”
Asked on Wednesday if there was tension between them, Kyrgios said: “I guess so – I don’t really care to be honest. I think he’s won a total of seven games against me, so I don’t really care.”
Kyrgios lost his grandfather two weeks ago and remains shook up and a little unfocused.
It hasn’t been showing in his play though, as he claimed four wins in Madrid so far – two in singles and two in doubles.
He is still wary of the Nadal challenge on his home clay.
“I think he’s the best clay-courter in the world, the greatest clay-courter of all-time,” said Kyrgios of the 30-year-old world No5.
“He’s going to be a massive favourite. It’s always going to be tough for any Australian to come play Rafa on clay but I feel if I play the right style of tennis and try and play and commit, I think I can do pretty well.”
Nadal arrived to this third round in contrasting fashion to Kyrgios’. The four-time Madrid champion struggled in his 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 win over Fabio Fognini on Wednesday but can at least find some solace in the fact he got the job done while being far from his best.
“I wasn’t criticising myself. I was just realistic. I haven’t played bad, I played really bad,” confessed Nadal after his three-hour battle with Fognini in tricky, windy conditions.
“I think that even though I played really badly, my attitude has been very positive. My attitude and the will to win today’s match was there.”
The 14-time grand slam winner has been suffering from a painful ear infection which he says cost him his “general stability”.
Of the Kyrgios challenge, Nadal said: “He’s one of the most difficult players you can play.
“It’s true that I think on clay he’s a very, very tough player. But perhaps here he’s a little bit less difficult to play. But here we have the altitude, and that makes him very complicated. He can be even more complicated than a hard court due to the altitude we have here.
“Let’s see what happens tomorrow. If I play late, the conditions will be a little bit slower. But, well, he’s an opponent that’s going to put a lot of pressure on me. He has a very good serve. He’s very aggressive. I have to try to be very solid with my serve, too. I’m going to try to play at a high rhythm.”