MELBOURNE: World No 1 Rafael Nadal praised showman Nick Kyrgios Monday after weathering a fierce storm to reach the Australian Open quarter-finals and keep alive his quest for a 20th Grand Slam title.
The Spanish top seed came through a riveting clash on Rod Laver Arena 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (8/6), 7-6 (7/4) to end the gallant hopes of the basketball-mad Australian, who came on court wearing an LA Lakers shirt in honour of Kobe Bryant.
He will now face fifth seed Dominic Thiem after the Austrian swept past Gael Monfils 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
“When he wants to play tennis, when he’s focused on what he’s doing, I think he’s a very important player for our sport because he has a big talent,” said Nadal, the 2009 champion who is looking to match Roger Federer’s record 20 Slam crowns.
“I am never against his way or style to play. When I criticised him in the past it’s because I think he did a couple of things that are not right and are not the right image of our sport and for the kids.
“But when he’s doing the right things, I am the first one who supports this.”
Their clash was billed as a grudge match after a series of bad-tempered exchanges last year when Nadal accused Kyrgios of lacking respect and the Australian fired back that the Spaniard was “super salty”.
But Kyrgios struck a conciliatory tone beforehand, and the match was played with respect.
The Australian said he was “shattered to lose” but hailed Nadal for “the champion he is, the player he is” and said he was working hard to keep up his new-found positivity.
“The trouble for me is being able to actually just produce the same attitude over and over again,” he said. “I mean, hopefully I can keep doing it. I’m just taking it day by day, trying to be positive, just bring positive vibes.”
There was little to split them on paper, with Nadal leading their career head-to-head 4-3 but Kyrgios 2-1 up on hardcourts and an even 1-1 in their Grand Slam matches, both at Wimbledon.
The second of those, last year, was a torrid affair, with Kyrgios ranting at the umpire, serving underarm and deliberately firing a forehand at the Spaniard.
The Australian walked out on Rod Laver Arena wearing a yellow Bryant singlet as a mark of respect to the legend who tragically died in a helicopter crash, and a short video tribute was shown.
Both held their opening service games before Nadal got a break in game four.
He was reading Kyrgios’ monster serve well and getting returns back over the net.
Kyrgios began talking to himself, never a good sign, and with Nadal too strong from the back of the court he comfortably took the set.
But the Australian calmed down and crucially held his opening second set service game in a 10-minute slog, and as his boisterous fans got behind him he broke Nadal with a looping forehand, punching the air in delight for a 3-1 lead.
Feeding off the crowd energy, he sealed the set with an ace.
Kyrgios was enjoying himself, grinning and applauding Nadal as the pair played some mesmerising rallies in a high-quality third set.
But he began unravelling at 6-5 down, becoming irritated with a line judge and telling the umpire: “We’re giving 130% and he can’t get line calls right. It’s embarrassing.”
And when Kyrgios went 3-1 down in the tie-breaker, he slammed his racquet, leaving it a mangled mess.
At 5-5 in the tie-break Kyrgios double faulted, giving Nadal a set point. In bizarre scenes, the Spaniard responded by double faulting himself before finally taking the set.
Kyrgios appeared spent and was broken for Nadal to take 2-1 fourth-set lead, and the Spaniard appeared headed for the finish line.
But he amazingly sent down a double fault when serving for the match and it again went to a tie-break, where Nadal finally sealed victory.