What makes Nick Kyrgios’ tennis game so good?

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He’s a polarizing figure and talks fierce play, but even his harshest critics would agree that world No. 40-ranked Nick Kyrgios has the punches to confuse any opponent.

We break down the shots, from the thunderbolt to the nuanced wrist on a rally, that made the Australian tennis star so dangerous as he became Wimbledon’s first unseeded semi-finalist since Rainer Schuttler and Marat Safin in 2008.

Armpit Service

Kyrgios has a bag of tricks that few players on the tour can boast. Indeed, he seems to have reintroduced the underarm serve. While some on the tour think it’s a sign of disrespect, others, including three-time Grand Slam winner Andy Murray and Kazakh tennis player Alexander Bublik, have followed suit.

Nick Kyrgios serves underarm at Wimbledon.

Bublik went even further by using the underarm serve six times in one match against American Frances Tiafoe this week. While Bublik was criticized, Kyrgios saw the lighter side.

“Actually, I remember the first time I did it, it was against [Rafael] Nadal in Acapulco,” Kyrgios said.

“Actually look back. Everyone should just look back on this. The commentators were like ‘what did he do here? It’s so disrespectful. Why would he do that?’ Now it’s like “so smart”. Andy Murray, so smart. I’m just like, what the hell? I play against Rafael Nadal for about three hours. I couldn’t earn any points. I threw an underarm serve. They say “I don’t know if there’s a place in the game for that”.

“Everyone does it now. It’s as if they were a genius.

Kyrgios also added the “tweener” underarm serve, hit across his legs, which also fooled many opponents.

Serve

Kyrgios has built his game around a fast, mechanically strong serve that he uses to support or can rely on to keep him going in the competition. This was demonstrated by his 17 aces beating Chilean opponent Cristian Garin 6-4 6-3 7-6 (7-5) on Wednesday.

The Australian’s first serve is one of the best on the tour – he wins 78.4% of the points when he enters. This ranks him third on the ATP Tour last year, behind John Isner and Marin Cilic.

He regularly backs up to produce a bomb under pressure, even on a second serve when many players prefer to just make sure the ball is in. Rather than let an opponent dictate a point, Kyrgios would rather crash – or crash. If successful, he usually feeds off of this, helping to garner the strong crowd support he needs.

Since he is tall, he uses a lower ball throw. This is hit with a flatness that generates power but also tight, hard-to-return angles. His fastest serve was the 230.1mph lightning strike he sent at Wimbledon in 2019 – ranked 34th fastest serve of all time. This equaled Roger Federer’s best but was 33 km/h slower than the fastest of all time, achieved by fellow Australian, Sam Groth.

That Kyrgios has quick arm action means he has little time for overthinking.

Former Australian star Wally Masur said Kyrgios was renowned for his “love at first sight”, while Britain’s four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist Tim Henman underlined how important service is for Kyrgios.

“You talk about the game’s great servers – obviously you’re going to talk and put [John] Isner up there, but it’s like an unfair advantage when you’re 6ft 10 or 6ft 11,” Henman told the BBC.

“In terms of the serve movement, it’s so simple. We analyzed his ball throw, how similar he is. It can hit all four corners effortlessly.

“It’s such a good base because it then frees him up to be aggressive in his own return games, and when you play against that you feel that if you lose your serve once that could be the finished set…

“It’s always going to be a big foundation. Add that to the conditions here – the grass courts. He’s going to like his chances against anyone.

trick shots

You name it, Kyrgios tried it. Along with the aforementioned underarm serves and tween, during the game there were a host of shots that he wasn’t afraid to show off.

There’s the deep groundstroke to his legs and the more nuanced return that lands just over the net, confusing even Nadal. Kyrgios used that same shot on the net volley.

He was also never afraid to use the no-look drive through his legs when retreating for a lob.

His silky skills also make him more than comfortable playing the deft volley across the court at net when the more conventional shot would be hitting a volley across the line.

The Canberran, who continues to avoid having a full-time coach, said he enjoys entertaining crowds and the response he has received for it.

“Tennis has been so straight for so long…they [the crowd] are so used to looking at the same thing every time. When someone like me comes along and does things differently, that’s all it takes,” he said.

Ground blows

Where are we going to start? Kyrgios has the full package – when he’s on song. He can smash winners on both sides of his body using his one-handed forehand – which he can also use to whip a searing ball down the court, leaving his opponent and fans in disbelief – or with his flat backhand to two hands. He is also comfortable playing the backhand, which allows him to charge the net.

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If his serve doesn’t catch you, a weak midcourt return will often mean his big, heavy forehand – which sometimes leaves him airborne – secures the point. He is as happy crossing the pitch as he is inside.

“Nick is not a player who uses force on the ground to generate power like a lot of clay-court players. He has this super fast arm, so the right arm, the right shoulder does a lot of work,” said said Masur, now a commentator for Stan Sports (owned by Nine, which owns this masthead).

Kyrgios also has strong hands, which helps him control his racquet. Opposing servers may look to attack him aiming for the wide third of the court, but Kyrgios has good footwork. As we know, he is not afraid to take risks. If there is an opportunity to win a point by attempting a backhand on the line, he will take it.

mind game

This is where it gets interesting, as Kyrgios can thrive when a boisterous crowd cheers him on – as seen widely at the Australian Open – or when there is teasing. Whether as the protagonist or at the end of a spray, he loves being the center of attention. And it’s a coin toss that Kyrgios will appear in court.

Masur, for example, didn’t know what to expect in the round of 16, as Kyrgios had been ‘lively’ in the first and third rounds and ‘calm’ in the second. In the end, it was a “moderate” Kyrgios who got rid of the American Brandon Nakashima, 56th, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2.

The fact that his emotions were largely subdued was attributed to the fact that Nakashima gave his opponent no ammunition. However, despite being “moderate”, there was still conversation with the referee in the tense fifth set, and allegations that he had “tank” when giving up the fourth set. Masur, however, said it skewed more towards the spirit of the game.

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“He was on a break and it was rather unusual because most players were like, ‘I’m going to hang on here, I’m going to serve him, which is always a tough game. And even if I lose, I’ll serve first in the fifth.

Kyrgios, by his own admission at the press conference, called it rope-a-dope. He felt like right now, Nakashima had the momentum and he had to do something to shake it off. It worked because he jumped it,” Masur said.

Masur also pointed out that this tactic is not new.

“Andre Agassi did it a lot. He would lose a break, 3-1, before you knew it it was 6-1, then he would turn it on in the next game. I think if it’s a point here, a point there, part of tennis, it can happen – you wouldn’t want to see it sustain over a number of games,” Masur said.

Amid the controversies, respected coach and commentator Roger Rasheed highlighted Kyrgios’ ability to focus on the pitch and “let things go” – a trait Shane Warne had.

Against Garin, his first time on the pitch since being summoned to a Canberra court to face an assault charge, Kyrgios was largely composed, despite being involved in a frosty exchange with his box of coaches in the first set.

Kyrgios has found himself embroiled in several on-field feuds over the years. In that tournament alone, he defeated world No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas in a heated and dramatic third-round clash that earned both players hefty fines. His actions even prompted 1987 Wimbledon champion and Australian tennis great Pat Cash to deliver a scathing assessment, salvaging “sportsmanship, cheating, manipulation, abuse, aggressive behavior towards referees, linesmen” of Kyrgios. Fellow countryman Mark Philippoussis called Kyrgios a bad influence on kids.

There was also the horrific first-round incident when he spat at a spectator and called a linesman a “snitch”, which earned him a fine.

Having reached the semi-final, Kyrgios said he was looking forward to a cooked dinner from his father Giorgos and a movie. We now look forward to what lies ahead for his first Grand Slam semi-final, when the stakes have never been higher.

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“I’ve been playing this sport since I was seven years old, and reaching a grand slam semi-final…I’m pretty happy,” Kyrgios said.

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