After weeks of problems and setbacks it felt like the unlikely figure of Nick Kyrgios came riding to the rescue of the Australian Open.
The tournament has looked badly in need of a first-week blockbuster following multiple Covid issues and disappointing crowds, and he may supply not one but two of them.
The first came in his thrilling five-set win, over gifted Frenchman Ugo Humbert, in which he saved two match points. That has set up what could be another on Friday, against world No 3 Dominic Thiem.
An exhausted Nick Kyrgios fell to his knees in celebration after completing his comeback win
Kyrgios had to dig deep against Ugo Humbert to progress to the Australian Open third round
Tennis has missed Kyrgios and it has missed the semblance of proper crowds. Both have been absent since last March but were suddenly back again as the enfant terrible pulled himself back from the brink to score a memorable 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory over the talented southpaw.
‘I feel old, I just want to have a glass of red wine,’ said the weary Australian, 25, who sat out the pandemic all of last year.
To beat Thiem he will need to avoid the mini-meltdowns which saw him docked a point for racket abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct before entering a state of calm.
These were partly precipitated by malfunctioning of the net-cord monitor, which nobody seemed able to fix. The officiating by technology has been far from foolproof so far this week.
The controversial Kyrgios argued with the chair umpire during his tense match with Humbert
Kyrgios said afterwards that a prime motivation was trying to avoid the criticism that would have come from defeat.
It was a typically contradictory stance from a player who often goes out of his way to court controversy, such as with his baiting of Novak Djokovic, who he could yet meet in the semi-finals.
‘I felt like there was a lot of expectation on me, not playing for a year and coming back,’ he said.
‘I don’t live under a rock. I know I catch a lot of flak for everything I do. Sometimes I don’t read it, but, like, it’s hard to miss.
The Australian applauded the crowd, who provided the best atmosphere of the tournament
‘I wasn’t expecting too much of myself but, of course, when I’m match point from a second-round exit, I was almost afraid.’
Around 4,000 fans were allowed in to watch him beat Humbert and their partisanship rattled the less experienced player. Thiem is made of sterner stuff.
‘You’re not going to make Grand Slam finals and win Slams if you’re scared of a little bit of an Aussie crowd,’ said Kyrgios of his next opponent.
‘I actually have a lot of respect for him. I think his style of tennis is not easy to play. He’s super physical.’
Frenchman Humbert took the first and third set to leave the home favourite with it all to do
But the Australian battled back to win a tie-breaker in the fourth before clinching victory
Many observers would love to see Kyrgios play Djokovic in the last four, although it probably will not happen.
Djokovic lacked assurance in struggling past Frances Tiafoe in four sets and declared afterwards that the courts were quicker than he had ever known them, helping big servers.
His next match is against powerful American Taylor Fritz, and then he could meet Canadian Milos Raonic, so it will not be easy for the Serb either.
The 25-year-old will now take on last year’s beaten finalist Dominic Thiem in the third round