As rivalries go, Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios' brief history hasn't approached the gravitas of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (they met a grand total of 80 times), or the antagonistic gusto with which Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe battled against one other. Unlike the epic competitions between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who clashed in five major finals, none of the Nadal-Kyrgios throwdowns played out on misted Grand Slam summits. The senior partner in this recurring dustup won't even call it a rivalry.
But when the men meet again in the fourth round at the Australian Open on Monday (ESPN2 and ESPN App), the matchup between the 19-time Grand Slam champion Nadal and still-Slam-less but flashy insurgent of men's tennis will send a jolt of electricity through fans and generate attention worthy of a major final.
Nadal-Kyrgios VIII has the feel of a heavyweight title fight with all the trimmings, including trash talk.
First and foremost, though, the competition has fired our imagination because of the tennis. This rivalry has made up in intensity for what it lacks in quantity or peak-moment cachet (only one of their meetings was in a final, in Beijing). It has already delivered a bumper crop of indelible moments and appealing contrasts.
Despite the superiority of Nadal's record, Kyrgios has three victories in those seven meetings against the GOAT candidate. The first was a startling, fourth-round upset at Wimbledon, where Nadal was the second seed and Kyrgios was just 19 years old and ranked 144 in the world. The unlikely victory catapulted the Australian upstart to fame.
The players reached the fourth round in Melbourne with impressive third-round wins. Nadal sorted out the missing details in his game in a thorough 98-minute drubbing of fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta. "It was my best match of the tournament so far, without a doubt," Nadal told reporters afterward. "I have been serving well, starting to create damage with the forehand."
Kyrgios' walk was also in a garden, but one of pain and stress. He failed to close out what looked like a routine win against No. 16 seed Karen Khachanov when he lost a 4-2 lead in the third set. The set went to a tiebreaker, which Kyrgios lost after failing to convert a match point. He was unable to capitalize on another match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Hours and scores of bone-jarring serves and groundstrokes later, Kyrgios claimed the fifth-set match tiebreaker, 10-8.
The effort may cost him dearly come Monday, because as he said during his on-court interview afterward, "Man, it was crazy. I got no words. ... Honestly, my legs feel like about 40 kilos each."
Having no words has rarely been the case for Kyrgios. His words have been the not-so-secret sauce in his history with Nadal, ever since Kyrgios mastered Nadal in the ATP 500 Acapulco tournament in the spring of 2019. Kyrgios dipped deep into his bag of tricks in that match, which included a few underarm serves and, in the view of some, feigning illness to play like a man in the bloom of good health. Nadal fired the first shot in their feud after that match, saying, among other things: "He lacks a little respect for the public, for his rival, and also for himself. He could win Grand Slams and fight the top positions of the ranking, but there is a reason why he is where he is [at No. 72]."
Kyrgios snapped back: "He doesn't know me, so I'm not going to listen at all. That's the way I play. The way he plays, he's very slow between points."
Soon after, Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and former coach, jumped into the tiff to denounce Kyrgios as a person who "lacked education and smartness." Kyrgios let that go, but added more fuel to the fire weeks later when he appeared on the "No Challenges Left" podcast and called Toni "an idiot" and said Rafa was "super salty."
The draw at Wimbledon last year put them on track to meet in the second round. Nadal tried to defuse the situation in London when he met with the press. Nadal, now 33, said then: "I'm too old for all this stuff now. What I said I said, and it's something because I believe it. I am not a guy [who is] gonna be in a fight with nobody. I am here to enjoy my sport."
The Wimbledon meeting was big box office. Nadal ultimately edged Kyrgios in a four-set thriller, with the Australian fuming at the Spaniard's famously slow play the whole way. At one point, he complained to chair umpire Damien Dumusois, saying: "When he's serving, he's controlling the tempo. Why do I have to wait for my serve? Why am I waiting? Why? It's too long between serves, it's bull----."
Kyrgios had a point, as the rules call for play to proceed at the pace of the server. But he wasn't finished. He also made his displeasure known when Nadal took a toilet break. The shot most fans remember from a match full of gems was a running forehand passing shot that Kyrgios ripped right at Nadal in the third set, targeting him at the net. Kyrgios refused to apologize then or later. Nadal chose to emphasize how dangerous it was to others -- ball kids, line officials, spectators -- when a player crushes a ball in anger.
When this year's Australian Open draw was released and Monday's match jumped out as perhaps a first-week highlight, Nadal kept his own counsel while Kyrgios indulged in a little mischief during his second-round match against Gilles Simon. Hit with a code violation for taking too much time, Kyrgios partly protested by mimicking Nadal's pre-serve mannerisms and adjustments.
Asked after his own match what he thought of Kyrgios' gesture, Nadal replied, "I really don't care. I am here to play tennis. Honestly, I don't care at all. If it was fun, OK."
One thing in the dynamic of this rivalry is clear: Kyrgios derives pleasure from fronting up rather than kowtowing to his more accomplished peers. In that same 2019 podcast, he said of 16-time Slam winner Novak Djokovic: "I've played him twice and, I'm sorry, but if you can't beat me, you're not the greatest of all time. Because if you like look at my day-to-day routine and how much I train and how much I put in, it's zero compared to him."
Kyrgios also knows he gets under Nadal's skin and has worked his way into his head. Nadal has been an excellent problem-solver against his main rivals, but Kyrgios is his Rubik's cube. The 24-year-old underdog has a knack for asymmetrical warfare: the scooped forehand, the drop shots, balls hit in one direction while he looks in the other, and extreme changes of pace (he can go from fireballer to junk-baller in the wink of an eye) that can drive Nadal batty.
There are vast temperamental and behavioral differences between the players, which also enhances the rivalry. Nadal is proud of the relentless effort he expends, his "passion" for the game. By contrast, Kyrgios cultivates the image of a man whose passions lie elsewhere, and has often been accused by some of not giving his best effort during matches. Nadal plays slow, while Kyrgios zips through games, as if he can't wait to see how the match turns out; he's a minimalist, right down to those abbreviated, flipper-like backswings. Nadal takes huge cuts and revels in the effort, a grinder who takes pride in his consistency; Kyrgios is an erratic shot-maker who loves nothing more than the opportunity to hit a 'tweener between the legs, preferably a lob or drop shot (yes, he has range).
Yet the contrasts between them have rounded edges. Both have traded on their appeal as challengers to tennis convention. It's easy to forget that, a decade-and-a-half ago, Nadal was the mischievous star tormenting classicist Roger Federer. The young Nadal wore sleeveless shirts and long shorts commonly called "clamdiggers," helicoptered his forehand, and glazed in perspiration, and grunted his way into the hearts of legions of fans.
Kyrgios may be the anti-Nadal when it comes to his indifference to his profession and its demands, but he's also offering an alternative to the familiar base models. Over time, Kyrgios has also come to an astute understanding of his role in the sport. He is the disruptor, the impulsive malcontent who will gleefully ruin the day for his dull, diligent brethren. He likely isn't as contemptuous of Nadal as those who enjoy fanning the flame of controversy make it sound. But he's come to realize the potency of showmanship. And he just plain likes to have fun. He understands fans and their hunger for the unpredictable, and he happily loads up their plates with it.
In his more sober moments, after the scoreboard lights up with the only real truth in sports, Kyrgios acknowledges that Nadal has something he lacks.
After their last meeting (last year at Wimbledon), Kyrgios was asked what he admires about Nadal. "He plays every point. He doesn't take one point off," Kyrgios said. "I feel like we're the polar opposites. I struggle so hard to just play every point with a routine, have the same patterns. ... His ability to bring it every day and compete, it's special."
And, on Saturday evening after beating Khachanov, he added, "Whatever happens between us, he's an amazing player -- arguably the greatest player of all time."
It sounded like the declaration of a truce. But then, what fun would that be?