Nick’s tricks: What makes Kyrgios’ game so good?

By Jon Pierik

Choose your strength: Nick Kyrgios.Credit:The Age

He’s a polarising figure and talks a fierce game, but even his harshest critics would acknowledge Nick Kyrgios, ranked No.40 in the world, has the shots to trouble any opponent.

We break down the shots, from the thunderbolt serve to the nuanced flick of the wrist during a rally, that make the Australian tennis star so dangerous in becoming the first unseeded Wimbledon semi-finalist since Rainer Schuttler and Marat Safin in 2008.

Underarm serve

Kyrgios has a bag of tricks few on the circuit can boast. Indeed, he appears to have reintroduced the underarm serve. While some on the tour believe it’s a sign of disrespect, others, including three-time grand slam winner Andy Murray and Kazakh tennis player Alexander Bublik, have followed suit.

Nick Kyrgios serves underarm at Wimbledon.

Bublik even went one step further, using the underarm serve six times in one game against American Frances Tiafoe this week. While Bublik was criticised, Kyrgios saw the lighter side.

“I actually remember the first time I did it, was against [Rafael] Nadal in Acapulco,” Kyrgios said.

“Actually watch it back. Everyone should just watch that back. The commentators were like: ‘What’s he done here? It’s so disrespectful. Why would he do that?’ Now it’s like: ‘So smart. Andy Murray, so smart.’ I’m just like, what on earth? I’m playing Rafael Nadal for like three hours. I couldn’t win a point. I threw in one underarm serve. They say, ‘I don’t know if there’s a place in the game for that’.

“Everyone does it now. It’s like they’re a genius.”

Kyrgios has also added the “tweener” underarm serve, hit through his legs, which has also fooled many an opponent.

Serve

Kyrgios has built his game around a quick, mechanically sound serve that he uses to take charge or can rely upon to keep him in the contest. This was shown through his 17 aces in defeating Chilean opponent Cristian Garin 6-4 6-3 7-6 (7-5) on Wednesday.

He regularly backs himself to produce a bomb under pressure, even on a second serve when many players prefer to just ensure the ball is in. Rather than allow an opponent to dictate a point, Kyrgios prefers to crash through – or crash. If successful, he typically feeds off this, and can spark the strong crowd support he craves.

As he is tall, he uses a lower ball toss. This is hit with a flatness that generates power but also tight, tough angles to return. His fastest serve was the 230.1 km/h thunderbolt he sent down at Wimbledon in 2019 – ranked the 34th quickest serve of all time. That equalled Roger Federer’s best but is 33 km/h slower than the quickest of all time, delivered by fellow Australian, Sam Groth.

That Kyrgios has a quick arm action means there is little time for him to overthink.

Former Australian star Wally Masur said Kyrgios was renowned for his “thunderbolts,” while British four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist Tim Henman underscored just how big a weapon the serve is for Kyrgios.

“You talk about the great servers in the game – you’re obviously going to talk about and put [John] Isner up there, but it’s like an unfair advantage when you’re six foot 10 [or] six foot 11,” Henman told the BBC.

“In terms of that [service] motion, it’s so simple [and effective]. We analysed his ball toss, how similar it is. He can hit the four corners effortlessly.

“That is such a great foundation because it then frees him up to be aggressive on his own [return] games, and when you’re playing against that you feel that if you drop your serve once, that could be the set over …

“It’s always going to be a big foundation. Add that to the conditions here – the grass courts. He’s going to like his chances against anyone.”

Trick shots

You name it, Kyrgios has tried it. As well as the aforementioned underarm and tweener serves, while in play there have been a host of shots he hasn’t been afraid to unveil.

There’s the deep groundstroke hit through his legs, and the more nuanced return that lands just over the net, even baffling Nadal. Kyrgios has used this same stroke when volleying at the net.

He has also never been afraid to use the no-look drive through his legs when retreating for a lob.

His silky skills also have him more than comfortable playing the deft chip-across-court volley at the net, when the more conventional stroke would be to punch a volley down the line.

The Canberran – who continues to eschew having a full-time coach – said he enjoyed entertaining crowds, and the response he received for doing so.

“Tennis has been so straight for so long … they [the crowd] are so used to watching the same thing every time. When someone like me comes and does things differently, that’s all it takes,” he said.

Ground strokes

Where do we start here? Kyrgios has the complete package – when on song. He can crunch winners from both sides of his body using his one-handed forehand – which he can also use to whip a searing ball across court leaving his opponent and fans in disbelief – or through his flat, double-handed backhand. He is also comfortable playing the backhand slice, allowing him to charge the net.

If his serve doesn’t get you, a weak mid-court return will often mean his big, heavy forehand – that sometimes leaves him airborne – secures the point. He is as happy going across the court as he is inside out.

“Nick is not a player that uses ground force to generate power like a lot of claycourters. He has got this superfast arm, so the right arm, the right shoulder do a lot of work,” Masur, now a Stan Sports (owned by Nine, which owns this masthead) commentator, said.

Kyrgios also has strong hands, and this helps with his racquet control. Opposing servers can look to attack him by aiming for the wide third of the court, but Kyrgios has good footwork. As we know, he isn’t afraid to take risks. If there is an opportunity to win a point attempting a backhand slice down the line, he will take it.

Mental game

This is where it gets interesting, for Kyrgios can thrive when a boisterous crowd is supporting him – as we largely see at the Australian Open – or when there is jeering. Either as the protagonist or on the end of a spray, he loves being the centre of attention. And it’s a coin toss as to which Kyrgios will take to the court.

Masur, for instance, didn’t know what to expect in the round of 16, for Kyrgios had been “animated” in the first and third rounds and “calm” in the third. Ultimately, it was a “subdued” Kyrgios who disposed of 56th-ranked American Brandon Nakashima 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2.

That his emotions were in check for the most part was attributed to Nakashima not giving his opponent any ammunition. However, despite being “subdued,” there was still a chat with the umpire in the tense fifth set, and allegations he had “tanked” when dropping the fourth set. Masur, though, said this erred more towards gamesmanship.

“He was down a break and it was kind of unusual because most players would say, ‘I am going to hang on tough here, I am going to make him serve it out, which is always a difficult game. And, even if I lose, I will serve first in the fifth.’ But Nick, by his own admission in the press conference, called it rope-a-dope. He felt like at that point Nakashima had the momentum and he needed to do something to shake it up. It worked because he jumped him,” Masur said.

Masur also pointed out this tactic was nothing new.

“Andre Agassi used to do it a lot. He would be down a break, 3-1, before you know it, it was 6-1, and then he would just light it up in the next game. I think if it’s a point here, a point there, part of tennis, it can happen – you wouldn’t want to see it sustained over a number of games,” Masur said.

Amid controversies, respected coach and commentator Roger Rasheed has pointed to Kyrgios’ ability to focus on court and “let things go” off it – a trait Shane Warne had.

Against Garin, his first time on court since he was summoned to a Canberra court to face an assault charge, Kyrgios was largely composed, although he was involved in a frosty exchange with his coaching box in the first set.

Kyrgios has found himself embroiled in several on-court spats through the years. In this tournament alone, he overcame world No.5 Stefanos Tsitsipas in a heated, dramatic third-round clash that earned both players hefty fines. His actions even prompted 1987 Wimbledon champion and Australian tennis great Pat Cash to deliver a scathing assessment, savaging Kyrgios’ “gamesmanship, cheating, manipulation, abuse, aggressive behaviour to umpires, to linesmen.” Fellow countryman Mark Philippoussis labelled Kyrgios a bad influence on children.

There was also the ugly first-round incident when he spat towards a spectator and called a line judge a “snitch,” earning a fine.

Having advanced into the semi-final, Kyrgios said he looked forward to a cooked dinner from his father Giorgos and a movie. We now await what’s in store come his maiden grand slam semi-final, when the stakes have never been higher.

“I’ve been playing this sport since I was seven, and to reach a semi-final of a grand slam … I’m pretty happy,” Kyrgios said.

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