For the third consecutive day, one of the top-seeded men or a heavy favorite exited the 2022 U.S. Open.
In a match that began Tuesday night and ended in the small hours Wednesday morning, Nick Kyrgios lost to Karen Khachanov of Russia in five sets in a duel between two of the hardest hitters in the game, but also two players whose minds have often gotten in the way of the success that so many predicted for them when they were teenagers.
Khachanov won the three-hour, 39-minute scrap, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4. Kyrgios looked to have the momentum after taking the fourth-set tiebreaker, but he lost his serve in the opening game of the fifth set and never recovered.
“Crazy match,” Khachanov, the No. 27 seed, said in his on-court interview. He’ll face Casper Ruud of Norway, the No. 5 seed, in the semifinals.
For Kyrgios, the talented but temperamental Australian, the loss came two nights after he eliminated the top seed and the defending champion, Daniil Medvedev, another Russian. On Monday, Rafael Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam singles champion, lost in fourth sets to Frances Tiafoe, a rising American.
Nadal’s loss was less of a surprise than Medvedev’s, especially because few would have been shocked if the two had met in the finals had they landed on opposite sides of the draw. The surprise was how efficiently the 23rd-seeded Kyrgios had steam-rolled Medvedev, who is widely recognized as the world’s top hardcourt player, in the third and fourth sets.
The performance was among the best matches Kyrgios, 27, has ever played at a Grand Slam tournament, if not the best. In those final two sets, in game after game, Kyrgios all but hit Medvedev off the court, except when he was confusing and frustrating Medvedev with his drop shots and touch volleys. There was little doubt when the match ended that if Kyrgios could continue playing at that level, it was unlikely anyone in the field would be capable of stopping him from winning his first Grand Slam singles title in a career marked by wild swings of brilliance and blowups.
The only consistencies in Kyrgios’s game and the mind that rules it though are their unpredictability, and how irresistible tennis fans find it.
Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion who now coaches Novak Djokovic, has described Kyrgios as a “tennis genius.” But just when it appears that Kyrgios has everything locked in — his massive serve, his blistering forehand, his deceptively quick movement, his breathtaking touch, his combustible temper — something goes awry.
Against Khachanov, the inability to find anything close to the near-perfection he had reached against Medvedev doomed him. Kyrgios was just slightly off, and against a far inferior opponent. Shots that normally burn the lines drifted beyond them. Shots that usually zip over the net on a wire slammed into the tape, or even the middle of the net in the lesser moments. He struggled all night to crack the code of Khachanov’s serve, especially on his rare chances to break it.
At one point, he got so frustrated with his inability to get off a quality return that he swatted at the balls as though he was trying to kill a fly with a swatter. After losing two golden chances to break Khachanov’s serve late in the third set, he smashed his racket on the ground and later smacked a television camera with his hand.
The tide appeared to turn three games later, when Kyrgios stroked a series of easy rally balls into the middle of the net, giving the crucial third set to Khachanov. Kyrgios went up a break in the fourth set, gave it back, then prevailed in the tiebreaker, but that brief stumble early in the fifth set cost him the match.
Khachanov, 26, was not perfect, but he was as good as he needed to be, serving hard, working enough points around to his smooth and powerful forehand, and attacking as soon as he could find an opening. He also kept his emotions in check, even as the crowd rallied behind Kyrgios — New York has always loved a showman — and heckled the Russian. He waited for Kyrgios to grow frustrated enough to want to get off the court and get home to Australia.
Kyrgios never got there, though he had ample opportunity. Instead he fought to the bitter end, whipping forehands and pounding serves, moaning as he chased down shots against a stubborn player who managed to come up with his own big serves when needed, including on the final point, one last bomb down the middle of the court. Moments later, Kyrgios smashed a racket on the side of the court.
Kyrgios’s immediate future is uncertain. He loathes the time away from his home and his family that the sport requires. His mother has been ailing. A court hearing has also been scheduled in early October for Kyrgios to face a charge of assaulting his former girlfriend in Canberra last December. Kyrgios has not commented on the charges. He could face prison if convicted.
He has long had an ambivalent relationship with tennis. He played little during the early days of the pandemic, choosing not to travel the world to play in empty stadiums. Then, in January, he won the Australian Open doubles title with his longtime friend Thanasi Kokkinakis.
The victory both lit a fire in Kyrgios and also taught him how much commitment and energy playing a Grand Slam to the finish over two weeks required. He skipped the clay court season because he hates playing on the surface, then took over Wimbledon, becoming the talk of the tournament with his sublime play and his antics, which included fights with officials and taunting Stefanos Tsitsipas into submission. In the finals he lost in four sets to Djokovic, who won his 21st Grand Slam singles title.
Kyrgios said if he had won Wimbledon, he might have struggled to find a reason to keep playing tennis. The sport, and the expectations that had been placed on him when he burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old, have tortured him, and driven him to alcohol abuse.
This U.S. Open offered him the best opportunity of his career to win a Grand Slam singles title. Djokovic’s refusal to receive a vaccination for Covid-19 prevented him from entering the country to participate, and then Nadal had been eliminated in the fourth round.
As Kyrgios took the court Tuesday night, no one who had won a Grand Slam title was left in the draw, and he was playing some of the best tennis of his life, until he wasn’t any longer.