It was hard to work out which part of the Nick Kyrgios show the crowd enjoyed more. His spellbinding victory over 21st seed Ugo Humbert? Or the equally captivating interview that followed? On days like this, he is arguably the most charismatic athlete in the world.
For the fans, part of the thrill lay in witnessing one of tennis’ most elusive sights. Because Kyrgios has spent most of the past 18 months on his couch in Canberra, playing Call of Duty on his PlayStation. This was only his seventh match since the pandemic began.
For Kyrgios, the virus has offered a welcome break from a tour that he finds monotonous and stultifying. But it also highlighted his growing maturity. While most of the leading players were convening in New York for last year’s US Open, he was driving around his neighbourhood, delivering food packages to anyone forced to self-isolate.
Maintaining his glorious isolation, Kyrgios only flew into the UK on Thursday, having not played a match since February’s Australian Open.
Professionalism is not his strong point. But for talent and unpredictability, his scores are off the charts.
You had to feel for Humbert. Drawn against Kyrgios in the second round of that Australian Open, he scrapped for 3½ hours and came out a loser in five sets. Then, first round at Wimbledon, same thing all over again. The only difference is that this match had to be suspended overnight because of Wimbledon’s 11pm curfew.
The players returned on Wednesday afternoon at 3-3 in the deciding set. Given the excellence of both serves, a tie-break seemed a realistic prospect. But after a tense half-hour, Kyrgios managed to break for 8-7. In a thrilling final game, he then fended off two break points – the second of them with an exquisite backhand up the line – before completing the job with an unreturnable serve.
There was one nasty moment when the drama seemed likely to be cut short. As Humbert served at 6-6, Kyrgios found himself wrong-footed in a way that recalled Adrian Mannarino’s incapacitating fall on Tuesday night.
He appeared to be in extreme pain as he writhed on the ground for a few seconds, and then swore lustily as he climbed back to his feet. But after a couple of moments of stalking around in that peculiarly stooped posture of his (surely the result of too much PlayStation), he composed himself, before continuing as if nothing had happened.
“I’m not the most flexible bloke,” Kyrgios said afterwards. “Any time my legs spread a little bit apart, I’m like, ‘Ahhh!’ Going down, it was pretty brutal. It hurt. My hip hurt. But I just got back up and showed some resilience. Comes with age.”
And what about that four-day window between landing at Heathrow and taking the court? “I think it was [Brad] Gilbert telling me, ‘There’s no chance you can come off the couch and compete at this level,’” Kyrgios said, in reference to the ESPN analyst who has coached various leading players including Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, I know my game.’ I know how to play on grass. I’m not scared of anyone in the draw. Three days, four days, a week; it doesn’t matter for me. I’ve been playing this sport since I was seven years old. I’m going to go out there, serve big and play big, and just compete.”
That was certainly the recipe against Humbert, in a match that featured 23 Kyrgios aces and a maximum speed of 134mph. His loose and languid right arm is one of the wonders of this sport, and it will be unleashed again against Gianluca Mager, the world No 77, who had never won a tour-level match on grass until this week.
He has been away too long but, after Wednesday’s goodie-bag of tricks and quips, Kyrgios is finally back where he should be: performing for an overjoyed crowd.