Rafael Nadal stretched his winning streak in 2022 to 19 matches in another controversial and blockbusting battle with his old foe Nick Kyrgios.
The 21-time Grand Slam champion fought hard to overcome both the talent and theatrics of the Aussie to book a spot in the Indian Wells semi finals courtesy of a 7-6 (0) 5-7 6-4 victory.
It was an incident-packed, epic affair lasting two hours and 46 minutes with the three-time champion improving to 6-3 in the head-to-head with his bitter rival.
Nadal will now meet either Cameron Norrie or fellow Spaniard, Carlos Alcaraz in what will be his 11th appearance in the last four in the desert.
“I think everybody has a tough match against Nick, especially when he’s playing against the best players,” Nadal told Amazon Prime following . “He is always excited to play these types of matches and when he’s excited everybody knows how good he is and how dangerous he is.
“I’m happy with the victory. I knew it was going to be a tough match. He came to this round winning all of his matches very easily.
“I think he started the match very well. I was lucky to save that first set without a doubt. And then in the second, when the situation looks a bit better, I played a terrible game at 6-5 and I had to fight again at the beginning of the third to avoid the break. But then I think I played a great set.”
Fireworks are never far away when these two lock horns and after a simple hold apiece the match exploded into life.
Kyrgios earned two break points with a crunching forehand up the line but Nadal saved the first after some huge fortune with a couple of misfires off the same flank. The Aussie shook his head and muttered ‘Aren’t you going to say sorry for that shank?’ loud enough for it to filter through to the number four seed. It appeared to unnerve the Spaniard as he coughed up a double fault to gift the early break to his opponent.
Nadal looked to respond by engaging the world number 132 in some physically gruelling rallies but Kyrgios upped the ante at deuce with some blistering groundstrokes to consolidate for a 3-1 lead.
The King of Clay was making some uncharacteristic miscalculations but pounced upon the first underarm serve of the match to thunder a forehand winner up the line. Kyrgios retorted with an ace down the T in what was ultimately a rapid hold for 4-2.
The Mallorcan had barely had a sniff on the return but he seized a lifeline with a succession of big forehands before luring an error long to level as the fiery Aussie served for the set.
At this juncture the high-octane level of tennis was reaching bewitching heights with acrobatics at the net from both players raising the crowd to their feet. Nadal somehow dug out a hold from deuce with Kyrgios throwing everything at him and it resulted in the wildcard violently smashing his racket in frustration.
The 26-year-old began to lose his focus and despite forcing the tie break he completely imploded. Nadal surged 6-0 ahead before Kyrgios aimed expletives towards his box, leading to a point penalty that cost him the set.
It was the first Kyrgios had dropped on his fine run to the quarter finals in the desert and with his anger threatening to boil over, he desperately needed turn to the new, positive mindset he had spoken about adopting recently.
Nadal had openings in the early exchanges of Set 2 but could not make the breakthrough as Kyrgios flirted dangerously with disaster. A second serve ace just clipped the line as he held for 3-2 before he finally settled back into the contest.
An underarm ace to clinch a love hold demonstrated a renewed clarity of mind and it was the Canberra native who looked the more likely at the business end. Nadal blinked serving to force a tie break and a spectacular finale saw the underdog level with an improvised overhead on the first of two set points.
Since the infamous fall-out of Kyrgios’ 2019 Acapulco win, Nadal has notched up a pair of four-set victories at the Australian Open and Wimbledon respectively, but it was very much anyone’s match in the decider here.
The former world number one had to work over-time to save two break points to get on the board before flipping the switch and piling on the pressure in Game 5. This time it was Kyrgios’ turn to come under the microscope, but he also brushed away two break points to hold with a blur of aces after an amusing exchange involving Ben Stiller in the crowd. ‘Do I tell him how to act?’ he queried in response to a comment from a spectator sitting near to the Hollywood star.
The drama didn’t aid the Aussie as Nadal went in for the kill again on his next return game. He picked up a drop shot and then put away the lob to earn another break opportunity. This time Kyrgios helped him over the line with a double fault and he vented his fury on the umpire as he fell 4-3 behind.
Nadal pressed for another break but when it didn’t materialise he brilliantly served out to love to stay perfect in 2022.