LONDON (Reuters) - Wimbledon has a new hero and, of all people, it is Nick Kyrgios, after the incredible sulk transformed himself into the Clown Prince during a hugely entertaining five-set victory over fellow Australian Jordan Thompson on Tuesday.
Tennis fans queued early to see Kyrgios, many hoping for fireworks from a player who has the longest rap sheet in the game. But by the time he triumphed 7-6 (4) 3-6 7-6 (10) 0-6 6-1 in an extraordinary contest, they were putty in his hands.
Only once did he lose his cool and belt a ball into the sky while chuntering about a bad call. The rest of the time he was more reminiscent of French maestro Henri Leconte playing an exhibition - both in terms of crowd interaction and shot choice.
“I’m never going to change,” Kyrgios told reporters. “I used to be like this when I played under 12s, 14s. I just go out there, have fun, play the game how I want it to be played.
“At the end of the day I know people are going to watch. They can say the way I play isn’t right or ‘he’s classless for the sport’, all that sort of stuff. They’re probably still going to be there watching.”
He must have played 30 drop shots, despite almost every one of them failing to yield a point. He threw in a bewildering array of slices and dices amid more conventional ground strokes and serves of immense power.
He somehow lost the fourth set to love in 18 minutes - less time than he took to win a marathon 12-10 tie break in the third.
He served a 120 mph ace on second serve on game point at 5-4 down in the first set. There was the mandatory under-arm serve, a half-court lap of honour after winning a key point in a tie break, repeated collapses to the floor in mock - or perhaps real - exhaustion.
His reward is a mouth-watering second-round clash with Rafa Nadal, the third-seeded Spaniard he has described as “super salty”, in a match that will severely test the allegiance of the Wimbledon fans.
They were fully behind Kyrgios on Tuesday, however, almost from the start. There was a hush of expectation when he was called for a foot fault while serving on break point down in the first set - but the explosion did not come.
He recovered to take the set and recognised the good play of his compatriot - “hell of a volley”, “great lob” - while losing the second.
Up or down in the match, Kyrgios seemed to be enjoying himself immensely - which appeared to discombobulate his opponent as much as his varied serves, which frequently left him wrong-footed and appealing to the skies for guidance.
The third set tiebreak was a classic, swinging both ways, though with Kyrgios always seemingly on top, which made his fourth set collapse even more inexplicable.
He did not quite “tank” it, as he has so often before, but did not bust a gut either once he had been broken twice.
Kyrgios was re-energised for the fifth, cutting down the high-risk, low-reward drop shots, and really finding his range with his powerful forehand.
It eventually proved too much for Thompson, who has now lost in the first round on all four of his appearances, as Kyrgios eventually ran away with the fifth set.
Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander said he would be a “nightmare opponent” for Nadal, who he beat at Wimbledon in 2014 and is 3-3 in career head-to-head meetings, though the Swede said he still struggled to understand the Australian’s mindset.
“He is so talented, has a great serve and the shots he has ... so it’s not easy to solve what is going on in his mind during a time like in the fourth set,” Wilander said.
“Maybe a second round match against someone like Rafa is a match he needs.
“You always get the feeling Nick is a good friend in the locker room and the guys love having him around. But they hate playing him because you just don’t know what he is going to do next. Nick obviously wants to win tennis matches, he just does it in a different way.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Additional reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Alison Williams and Ken Ferris