It could be another dangerous match for Rafael Nadal on Thursday. A day after being pushed to the limit in his opener against Fabio Fognini, the fourth seeded Spaniard faces Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios owns a win and a loss against Nadal with the loss coming on clay in three sets last year in Rome.
(4) Rafael Nadal vs (16) Nick Kyrgios
Nothing came easy for Nadal in his opening match in Madrid against Fabio Fognini. Rafa’s serve was a bit shaky as he dished out 16 break chances in the 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 win. Nadal would manage to save a dozen of those chances, but he was in trouble far too often. His serve also let him down in a key moment at 5-3 in the third set, when the fourth seeded lefty failed to serve out the match. Fortunately for Rafa, he used his return and defense to secure the decisive break in the next game to close out the match.
Nadal said after the match that he didn’t play bad, he played really, really bad against the Italian. Rafa said he thought it was important though that he stayed positive and was able to trouble shoot his way through a day where he obviously was not playing his best.
As for Kyrgios, he dumped Ryan Harrison in straight sets 6-3, 6-3 on Wednesday. That followed up on a straight sets win over Marcos Baghdatis to start the tournament, where he smacked 14 aces. Against Harrison, the ace total was lower, but the 16th seeded Aussie still won 37 of 44 points on serve. He saved his lone break chance faced in the match. Kyrgios was able to eat into Harrison’s service games enough to craft three breaks on six chances.
Serve Shocker: Rafa Tough For Kyrgios to Break Down
There’s certainly no doubt that Nadal would rather contend this match on dirt rather than hard courts or grass. Kyrgios’ power and serve would pose a considerably higher threat on those surfaces. That was evident when Kyrgios beat Nadal in their first-ever meeting at Wimbledon in 2014. Kyrgios dominated with 37 aces in the 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3 win. Even with the slower conditions in Madrid, the Aussie should still give Rafa a real test on Thursday. In their last meeting at last year’s Rome Masters, Kyrgios took the opening set in a tiebreak before Nadal rallied for a 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-4 win. The Aussie had to face 15 break chances with Nadal cashing in four times. Oppositely, Nadal faced just four break chances and saved three. That was the exact same stat line from their first meeting at Wimbledon, where Nadal also dropped serve just once.
You can’t start a Nick Kyrgios analysis without talking about the serve, but as I just mentioned, Nadal’s has been potent against the Aussie. I think you can contribute some of that to Kyrgios not being the greatest of return men, but it also shows that the lefty throws some confusion Kyrgios’ way. Kyrgios has been a rock on serve through two rounds this week, but obviously gets a step up in return with Rafa across the net. Nadal must show patience with Kyrgios certain to serve up plenty of nearly unreturnable or unreturnable balls when he’s in rhythm. The key for Nadal is getting his racquet on enough balls to force Kyrgios to play his game and engage in a baseline slugfest.
When Nadal gets Kyrgios into those rallies, that is going to benefit him just about every time. Kyrgios normally doesn’t have the patient approach to his ground game, so he’ll hit bigger and go for point ending shots earlier. It can work for him when his forehand is blistering precisely around the court, but it can backfire quickly when it’s not. Rafa will test that accuracy and he’s sure to go after NK’s backhand at-will. In the Rome meeting, Kyrgios stayed aggressive most of the match, but he was not able to sustain consistent accuracy in trying to fire in those winners.
That is why I think Kyrgios does need to make sure he’s willing to battle in some of those longer rallies or he’s again going to have a microscopic margin of error. He shouldn’t be afraid to lose a longer point. Kyrgios could just as well get himself into position where his power takes Nadal out of position in a longer exchange. He’ll need to provide some balance to the match with those exchanges along with the quicker, more aggressive style that suit him best. The buck will always start and stop with the Aussie’s serve. If he isn’t having to worry about Nadal eating into his service games because he’s in rhythm and winning cheap points, he’s free to let it fly off the ground with that rocket forehand leading the charge.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
Nadal is obviously facing something completely different in this match versus what he just saw against Fognini. That could put some big pressure on Nadal’s serve that has been so much better for the majority of the year than it has in the past year or so. Nadal has shown a knack for coming up with key serves at key moments and likely will need that it what could be a very tight contest if Kyrgios’ serve is up to snuff on Thursday. Kyrgios has shown the ability to simply out serve an opponent of high quality regardless of surface and it would not stun me to see him win here. Still, Nadal has re-established himself as the guy to beat on clay and the best guy not named Federer on tour right now. Are we not entertained? I hope the answer is that we were.
Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets