World #1 Rafael Nadal takes on a nemesis from his distant and recent past in the shape of Australia’s Nick Kyrgios. The two have had some memorable clashes, and have also been playing some excellent tennis this week. A win for Nadal would further secure his grip on the top ranking, whilst if Kyrgios triumphs it would represent the joint biggest title he has won so far. But which man will come out on top in the Chinese capital?
Nadal and Kyrgios have played four times so far in their careers, with the head to head currently tied at two wins apiece. The first, and probably most famous match, came in 2014 at Wimbledon in the fourth round. Nadal came into the match as the massive favourite, he was the world #1, Kyrgios was still someway outside the top 100. But the Australian produced a scintillating display to dispatch Nadal in four sets and reach the quarterfinals. A similar shock looked to be on the cards in their next meeting which came on the clay courts of Rome in 2016. Kyrgios took the first set in a tiebreak, and looked comfortable and confident. Nadal, however, turned the tables on the younger man, taking the next two sets 6-2 6-4 to win the match.
He claimed another victory, in more comfortable circumstances, earlier this year in front of his home fans in Madrid. Kyrgios couldn’t live with Nadal that day and he managed just four games in a humbling defeat. However, the Australian inflicted some pain of his own in Cincinnati when he put Nadal to the sword in a 6-2 7-5 win in the quarterfinals. He would go on to reach his first final at Masters 1000 level, ultimately falling to Grigor Dimitrov.
Nadal’s path to the final
Nadal began his China Open campaign against Lucas Pouille of France. The Frenchman upset Nadal last year at the US Open and threatened to do the same again. He took the first set and forced two match points in a second set tiebreak. Nadal, however, raised his game at the critical moment to win four points in a row and level the match. Pouille continued to threaten, but he was never again able to come so close to victory. A squandered break point in third set proved costly for him, as Nadal showed no mercy when given an opportunity of his own. He broke for the first time at 5-5 and served out the match comfortably. This set up a meeting with Russia’s Karen Khachanov. Nadal was far more comfortable in this match, breaking early in both sets and winning 6-3 6-3.
The big serving American John Isner was his next opponent. Isner threatened early on, forcing a break point in fourth game of the match. But Nadal fended Isner off, and then pounced late on in the first set to break at 4-4. The Spaniard was unable to manufacture another break against the Isner serve in the second set, but in the tiebreak he was electric. An astonishing lob to win the first point set the tone and Nadal didn’t yield even a single point in wrapping up the victory in the tiebreak. Grigor Dimitrov awaited him in the semifinals and the Bulgarian world #8 represented a step up in quality for Nadal. An early break in the first set couldn’t be recovered by Dimitrov though. When Nadal broke through to love to begin the second the light looked to be fading fast for Dimitrov.
But the Bulgarian hasn’t returned to the top ten by taking defeats lying down and he roared back into the match, breaking Nadal twice to level the match. Nadal again though broke early in the decider, and this time there was to be no way back for Dimitrov. Another break followed, and Dimitrov’s resistance crumbled in the face of Nadal’s relentless pressure. The Bulgarian broke back once, but serving to stay in then down 2-5 Nadal pressed again and was rewarded with victory.
Kyrgios’ path to the final
Kyrgios opened against Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili. The Australian was utterly dominant throughout, sweeping aside Basilashvili 6-1 6-2. He was made to work harder in the second round where he met Mischa Zverev. The serve-volleying German took the first set 6-3 and looked to be in a commanding position. But it was Kyrgios who was to take charge thereafter. He lost just four more games as he wrapped up a 3-6 6-2 6-2 win. This earned him a spot in the quarterfinals where he faced the Belgian, Steve Darcis. The pair had recently contested a terrific five-setter in the Davis Cup, but there was to be no repeat of that clash. After losing the first nine games of the match Darcis retired injured.
The younger Zverev brother waited for Kyrgios in the semis. The two have had some thrilling clashes this year, particularly in the Miami quarterfinals. Kyrgios has also generally had the better of their rivalry thus far and he continued that trend in Beijing. One break was enough to seal both sets, with Zverev double faults costing the tall German. Kyrgios won through 6-3 7-5 to reach his second final of the year.
How do they match up?
The two represent very different ends of the tennis spectrum. Nadal is amongst the hardest working players ever to pick up a racquet. That work ethic has been key in allowing him to dominate the game through his almost peerless court coverage. That was on full display against Grigor Dimitrov. His forehand is also rightly famed for its destructive power. His ability to hit with both pace and topspin make it one of the most useful weapons on Tour. Particularly key for Nadal on a hard court is his down the line forehand, as it allows him a quick way of ending the point. An added bonus is that it prevents his opponents from camping in their backhand corner in order to protect what is usually their weaker wing.
Nick Kyrgios, in contrast, is amongst the more languid movers in the game. But his forehand though perhaps less efficacious than Nadal’s is still a serious weapon. His serve is also far superior to Nadal’s, particularly the first delivery. There are few players who can call upon the same combination of power and accuracy off the serve as the Australian when he is at his best. Indeed, he served well enough to defeat arguably the greatest returner of all time twice in a matter of weeks earlier this year in Acapulco and Indian Wells.
The most interesting battle will likely be between the two player’s backhands. Nadal has always had one of the most solid backhands in the men’s game, but under the tutelage of Carlos Moya he has stepped into the shot more with great effect. Kyrgios backhand has improved dramatically over the past few seasons, but it still provides him with less offensive options than his forehand. He will need, however, to be willing to take risks throughout with it if he is to trouble the great Spaniard.
Kyrgios has played some great tennis this week, but Nadal has at times reached that level that only Djokovic and Federer of his contemporaries can match. He also looks to have been getting better as the week has progressed. That inspires little faith in the prospect of a Kyrgios victory. The Australian has enough to trouble Nadal certainly, but it seems equally certain that he doesn’t have enough to beat him. Nadal in three sets.
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