LONDON — He's as modern as today, with a diamond stud in his left earlobe. He's as old-fashioned as serve-and-volley tennis.
Nick Kyrgios—“The Wild Thing,” as he is nicknamed in his native Australia—is the man who Tuesday turned Wimbledon upside down and turned himself into the star-in-waiting.
The 19-year-old Kyrgios—yes, his father came from Greece—upset the game's top-ranked player, Rafael Nadal, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 7-6, 6-3 in a fourth-round match the teenager called “the biggest win of my career.”
Which it was. To this moment.
Down Under, they've been saying the 6'4" Kyrgios, a one-time basketball player, is the one they've been waiting for since Lleyton Hewitt, who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002.
Australia's tennis history runs deep, with the Rod Lavers and John Newcombes, champions of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But they haven’t had a winner for a while.
Now along comes Kyrgios with the perfect blend of talent, self-belief and puckishness to win matches and win over the public—and media.
Before he faced Nadal, before he became the first player outside the top 100 (he was No. 144 but he’ll go up to the 60s, at least) to knock off a No. 1 since 1992, Kyrgios joked with an Aussie newsman.
“Obviously 14 Slams between us,” said Kyrgios, “so it’s going to be a good match.”
All 14, of course, won by Nadal, who, age 28, never had lost to anyone born in the 1990s. Now he has.
Given a spot in the Wimbledon draw as a wild card—perfect for The Wild Thing—Kyrgios improved rapidly over the past year. Just 16 months ago, he was No. 576 in the rankings.
He’s the first wild card to advance as far as the fourth round since Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2009. John McEnroe, commentating on the BBC, said Kyrgios, now in the quarters, can go even further, to the championship.
Not entirely absurd. Back in 1985, a 17-year-old with a big serve and great mobility, Boris Becker, did win. And now, Becker is helping coach Novak Djokovic, who, if they both keep winning, could face Kyrgios in the final.
Kyrgios' mother, who is Malaysian, would be surprised—not that she would be alone.
“(Saturday) night, I was actually reading a comment that she thought Rafa was too good for me,” said Kyrgios about his mom, Norlaila. “It actually made me a bit angry. You would think he’s in a whole ‘nother level compared to me.
“I just believed in myself, that I could create some opportunities. I took them under pressure today.”
He took Nadal, who is only weeks removed from his ninth French Open title, to the woodshed, serving 37 aces.
Asked about Kyrgios’ future, Nadal was careful in the assessment. “I don’t know,” said the Spaniard. “I didn’t see him playing on other surfaces. Grass is only three, four tournaments a year, but it is obvious when you have a player that is able to serve like that, always advantage is so high.”
Kyrgios symbolically served notice of what lay ahead a year and a half ago, when he won the Australian Open juniors. Now, in effect, he’s all grown up. And uninhibited. Against Richard Gasquet, in a second-round match, Kyrgios saved nine match points.
“Yeah,” he conceded after the Nadal victory, “definitely I‘m scared. Like I just go through my routine, and I just play aggressive. You know if they play too good on that point, then it’s good. But I’m going to go after it and give myself the best chance to win the point.”
That’s the sort of style and tactics a crowd loves, especially if they mean success. Fans love the swashbuckler, the gambler, but he or she better win. Losing, even with a lot of fancy moves, doesn’t sell.
Nadal’s method of diving sprinting, makes him a hero because he’s a champion. That’s the way he plays. That’s the way Kyrgios plays.
“I’ve learned a lot,” said Kyrgios of his steady progress. “I’m just going to, you know, try hard. Just give the people what they want, a bit of a show out there. I’m just going to continue to do that.”
He’s ready for the big stage, and in tennis, there’s no grander stage than the All England Lawn Tennis Championships, which has been pulling them in, fans and competitors, since the late 1800s. In horse racing, it’s the Kentucky Derby. In college football, it’s been the Rose Bowl, which just celebrated it’s centenary. In tennis, it’s Wimbledon.
“I think on the big stage,” said Kyrgios, “it’s something I thrive on, the atmosphere, the crowd. I just love it when, at 5-3, I think it was in the fourth set, they erupted, the crowd. I just love that feeling.
“I want to be the No. 1 player in the world.”
Beating the No. 1 player in the world at Wimbledon is not a bad way to start fulfilling that wish.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.