Having been two sets up and perfectly comfortable in this match against the Italian journeyman, Kyrgios dissolved into mess of code violations and unforced errors and in doing so, turned a straightforward match-up into a five-set horror show of scarcely believable proportions.
Seppi, on the other hand, showed the virtue of adhering to the game’s fundamentals in one of the great party-pooping acts in Australian Open history. By the end of the match the Italian had committed a telling 32 fewer unforced errors and covered 300 metres more ground than Kyrgios. In a figurative sense he’d gone the extra mile.
In the lead-up to this match Nill Kyrgios – mother of the great local hope – claimed a more settled routine and greater understanding of fame’s fickle embrace had helped both son and family deal better with his three-ringed circus life on tour; more time in hotel rooms near family and his calming Playstation, less time out and about as the centre of attention.
Cut to tonight, and the world No13 self-sabotaging his campaign before it had even begun. Kyrgios’ pre-match routine must have been a quick game of Grand Theft Auto. The problems here, you’d have to conclude, extended beyond the court. If Sam Stosur would perform better in a stadium entirely cleared of spectators, Kyrgios might do a hell of a lot better with the elimination of just the front row.
What the general public make of all this will be achingly predictable, because the fifth set was a public trial Kyrgios could never win. But when you pay for a ticket to watch him you’re signing up for one of two equally fascinating sights; a fully-fledged, flame-throwing tennis talent or sporting self-immolation. If you want the gap in between, head to the outside courts.
On Wednesday Melburnians were presented with a fascinating live-action timeline of three distinct stages of tennis fame; 17-year old Alex De Minaur’s nervous arrival in a round two defeat, Kyrgios visibly battling to handle outright superstardom and later on Margaret Court Arena, Bernard Tomic looking like a man crossing over to the downslope of a career that promised much but so far amounts to talent squandered – precious innocence, precocious insouciance and premature indolence.
Wedged in the middle, Kyrgios’ encounter was in prospect the furthest from a mismatch and so it proved. Seppi is a bit like beetroot dip – very unlikely to make your night but a reliable performer. Twice he has reached the fourth round at Melbourne Park, which Kyrgios knew well from enduring another five-set nightmare against him in the round of 16 two years back.
In the early stages the Italian battled grimly, rarely finding himself in the same postcode as the ball in Kyrgios’ opening service game, then hamfistedly losing his own as the favourite sprinted out of the blocks. Kyrgios broke for a second time and wrapped up the opening set in 28 minutes of frenetic but not entirely flawless tennis.
The second set stayed on serve for its duration, though Seppi found the task of holding a little more straightforward than his opponent and had the better of him for much of it. Kyrgios was by contrast a bit sloppy, often getting too inventive when the fundamentals would have done the job.
“You’re so shit,” the Australian upbraided himself at one point, but even playing well within his capabilities he strung it out to a tiebreak and then pounced, elevating his game at the critical moment and conceding only a single point as Seppi took his turn at muttering a scathing self-assessment. He’d won nearly every statistical category for the set, though not the one that mattered.
The third set bore remarkable similarities to the third to start with, Kyrgios playing as though on power-saving mode for much of the time and acquitting himself like an alter boy. Then it all went irrevocably Kyrgios-shaped: shortly before Seppi held to make it 3-3 the Australian entered into prolonged tirade – directed mostly at his courtside entourage but also, as always, himself.
Already the outbursts had earned Kyrgios censure from the chair umpire, now they entirely broke what had seemed a quite unrealistically long spell of calm, and sent him into a spiral whose immediate result was the concession of a break and one smashed racquet. What followed was far worse for his chances of an early night: Seppi pinched the third set 6-4 in 31 minutes.
Kyrgios was as bug-eyed and volatile as ever. Seppi lives in Caldero, a northern Italian town with a population smaller than the crowd that watched him tonight, and where the main attraction is a placid lake at the foot of picturesque mountains. Standing 25 feet away from Nick Kyrgios tonight it must be impossible to even imagine such serenity.
All of a sudden every bad line call seemed a conspiracy, each unforced error some divine intervention Kyrgios couldn’t counter, so he dropped his serve in the opening game of the fourth set and then again to lose it 6-2 in 25 minutes amid a flurry of unforced errors, all the while sustaining the rather one-sided argument with his entourage.
In the fifth set, the Australian finally cooled his jets, relatively speaking, and it remained on serve. At 4-3, after winning a 26-shot rally, Kyrgios smiled smugly at the chorus of cheering from his home crowd. He knows their fragile equilibrium as well as his own. Moments later he had three break points and a significant opening but botched it. “What do you want me to say?” he screamed. Far less, was the general consensus.
The sense of pandemonium simply refused to fade in the decider. Seppi broke, and the masses groaned in agony at Kyrgios’ casual indifference. Then the favourite broke straight back to make it 6-6, so they shrieked at his unpredictable genius. Up 8-7 on Seppi’s serve, Kyrgios steeled himself and conjured a match point, but the Italian cracked a nerveless forehand winner down the line and served it out impeccably to save himself.
At that point another of Kyrgios’ racquets gave up the ghost, but from being overworked in the conventional sense. The final disaster struck in the form of the Australian’s eighth double fault, which handed Seppi the break he needed to serve it out for a remarkable 10-8 win. If the people of Caldaro ever erect a statue in his honour, it should be made of granite, not bronze. Kyrgios will be lucky if he gets out of town unscathed.