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Indian Wells 2017 Preview: Roger Federer takes on Nick Kyrgios

Who will win tomorrow - Roger Federer or Nicholas Kyrgios? It's going to be a close contest either way.

Preview 17 Mar 2017, 09:44 IST
Kyrgios defeated Federer in the pair’s only previous meeting

As we move towards the quarter-finals of the first ATP Masters tournament of 2017 – the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, fans are truly set to witness tennis’ powerful old guard take on its new faces in line for the throne, in the form of tomorrow’s Roger Federer – Nick Kyrgios clash. 

World No. 8 Roger Federer and No. 16 Nick Kyrgios are both in form, although on different relative scales. 35-year-old Federer has returned, almost, to his prime, decimating longtime opponent Rafael Nadal – in whose favour the pair’s head-to-head record is completely skewed. 

Kyrgios is one of the few players with the distinction of having beaten Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on debut against each of the former No. 1s – a staggering statistic, and one that should quite plainly attest to his talent. 

He has only played Federer once before, at the ATP1000 Mutua Madrid Open, played on clay, with Federer top seeded at the event and facing the young Australian, then still a teenager, in his first match.

Every single match in that tie went to a tiebreak, with Federer taking the first set in convincing fashion, at least within the tiebreak. Played tightly until its very end, the match saw an already top-50 ranked Kyrgios (who has since ascended to the top 20) play some masterful tennis. 

Kyrgios’ game, like Federer’s is pacier and much better suited to the quick grass courts of Wimbledon, a surface the Australian had ousted Rafael Nadal on in the pair’s only meeting so far. 

But at the Madrid Masters of 2015, it was Kyrgios who came out on top with a  6-7(2), 7-6(5), 7-6(12) win – with Federer squandering two match points. 

The now 21-year-old has also made no secret of the fact that Federer is, for him as for so many other fans, the Greatest of All Time. “He really is the greatest, and he’s my favourite,” Kyrgios said in a recent press conference. 

He has defeated his idol, however, on debut. 

And in so many ways, this quarter-final promises to be a study in contrast. It’s like Obi Wan Kenobi vs the renegade Anakin Skywalker, perhaps with the exception that Federer is not really his teacher, but his idol. It is the skilled, near undefeatable legend with the knowledge of the (tennis) universe versus the young firebrand looking to take the reins. 

Federer thinks highly of Kyrgios’ skill, but like many others disagrees with his  behaviour on court. Ahead of their quarter-final, the Swiss told organizers he was “...very impressed [about] him taking out Novak, back-to-back weeks, on Novak's best surface.”

To say hard courts are Djokovic’s ‘best surface’ would be an understatement; the Serb has 22 Masters titles on the surface, the most of any tennis player in history, with five of them at this specific venue. 

This, of course, is in addition to eight Grand Slams there. 

Like many top players, among them Djokovic and Murray, Federer has called for Kyrgios to improve on his behaviour. “ "I hope it's going to lead to something great for Nick, that he realizes if he puts his head down and focuses that he can bring it day in and day out, week in and week out. That's maybe going to take a bit more time."

Temperementally, the two players are like chalk and cheese, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, too. At the 2016 Rome Masters – on Nadal’s favourite surface, clay, the Spaniard may have lost the initial set, but his powerful backhand – once one of his biggest weapons against Federer, won him the next two.

Now, Federer has his own backhand – one that smoked past Rafael Nadal yesterday. How will Kyrgios deal with that? That in itself will be interesting. 

Both players have weapons – Kyrgios, like Federer, has an excellent serve and one that repeatedly earns its praise. But the numbers back up that serve, with ATP metrics analyses putting his serve fifth best of all time, and ahead of greats like Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, and service experts like Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis, nicknamed ‘The Scud’ for his intensely fast serve. 

In fact, in an interview with The New York Times’ Christopher Clarey, Paul Annacone, one-time coach of both Roger Federer and his idol, Pete Sampras, has said he considers Kyrgios “...the most talented player since Roger came on the scene.”

Federer and Kyrgios are both in their prime in terms of skill – and both have hidden weapons on the court. But the key, here, I think, will be the gulf of maturity that separates the two, and a maturity that is not necessarily hinged on age. Federer may have had an underlying arrogance in his earliest days on the court, and perhaps that came from the intense level of skill he possesses – which Kyrgios is not devoid of. 

Kyrgios may have tanked matches, given up, and screamed. But just as we are awed by the presence of our own idols, Kyrgios will be tempered in the presence of his idol, on his best behaviour, and with that aspect of his game controlled, could treat fans to a sublime performance. One year on from his outburst against a line judge in Madrid against Federer, has Kyrgios moved on?

Rarely, if ever, have fans been witness to an angry Federer outburst on court – and in that temper will lie a large part of the difference.

Roger Federer plays Nick Kyrgios for a spot in the semi-finals of the Indian Wells Masters tomorrow.

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