Rafael Nadal had just put the finishing touches on Nick Kyrgios, but before exiting the Stadium 1 tunnel he made sure to shake hands with Carlos Alcaraz and defending champion Cameron Norrie, one of whom would be his next opponent at the BNP Paribas Open.
As it turns out, that semifinal foe will be Alcaraz, who’s spent the bulk of his teen years drawing comparisons to his elder countryman, the 21-time Grand Slam champion.
“I think he’s unstoppable in terms of his career,” said Nadal, who prevailed in their only tour-level encounter last year on clay in Madrid, 6-1, 6-2. “He has all the ingredients: He has the passion. He’s humble enough to work hard. He’s a good guy. He reminds me a lot of things when I was a 17- or 18-year-old kid.”
“He has the talent and the physical component that’s great. I’m super happy even though it’s going to be a great rivalry for the next couple of months, without a doubt. But being selfish, it’s great, honestly, to have such a star from my country, because for the tennis lovers, we’re going to enjoy an amazing player fighting for the most important titles for the next, I don’t know how many years, a lot of years.”
In 2021, Alcaraz upset third-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas en route to becoming the youngest US Open quarterfinalist in the Open Era, and the youngest at any major since Michael Chang at Roland Garros in 1990. Earlier this year, he won the Rio title, the youngest ATP 500 champion in the history of the designation.
He made more history on Friday, booking the first all-Spanish Indian Wells men’s semifinal in the tournament’s 46-year history.
“I remember when I met him in Madrid, he destroyed me,” said Alcaraz, who punched his way past Norrie, 6-4, 6-3. “But I think this time is going to be a little bit different, for the second time. I think I’m more mature now.”
Their history is peppered with salty exchanges, something that began on the lawns of the All England Club back in 2014, when, as a 19-year-old wild card debutant, Kyrgios stunned No. 1-ranked Nadal in the Round of 16.
Thursday’s BNP Paribas Open quarterfinal was no exception.
With emotions often bubbling to the surface, it was the 4th seed Nadal who handled the circumstances best, stretching his career-best season start to 19-0 with a 7-6(0), 5-7, 6-4 victory over the wild card Kyrgios. The spotless start to 2022 ranks third only to Novak Djokovic’s 41-0 of 2011 and 26-0 of 2020 in the Open Era.
“You face different kinds of opponents, different personalities. Nick is a player who plays a lot with his personal feelings, with his emotions,” said Nadal. “When he’s positive, he’s playing fantastic. Sometimes he changes the dynamic of the match. But today he fought all the time. He likes to play these kinds of matches.”
Kyrgios, at No. 132 the lowest-ranked Indian Wells quarterfinalist in more than a decade, came into the match an impenetrable nine-for-nine on break points saved, and 26-for-26 on his service games. But up a break and serving for the opening set at 5-4, 30-40, he sent a forehand beyond the baseline, broken for the first time in five matches.
The 26-year-old would take out his frustrations on his racquet after dropping the 11th game of the first set, subsequently presenting its shattered remnants to a delighted young fan. Fittingly, the opener would come down to a tiebreak. Trailing 0-6 in the stanza, the fiery Aussie muttered an audible obscenity, a turn of events that would cost him a point and, as a result, the set.
With a star-studded crowd that included the husband-wife combo of actors Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and 1992 Indian Wells champion Monica Seles glued to the action, Kyrgios would level the match at a set apiece. With Nadal serving at 5-6, 15-40, the Canberran scrambled for an acrobatic backhand overhead and let out a roar.
Nadal would struggle from the service stripe throughout the two-hour, 46-minute contest, amassing an uncharacteristic seven double faults. But it was a DF from Kyrgios at 3-all, 30-40 in the final set that would prove most costly.
“The semifinals, for me, is great news,” said Nadal, a three-time champion in the desert (2007, 2009 and 2013). “I’m very happy with the result. Nick is one of the most talented players on the tour, without a doubt. When he’s playing with motivation and passion, he’s one of the players who can win against anyone.”
“I feel like we respect each other. I think he’s the greatest of all time,” said Kyrgios. “I’ve had a couple of comments, and he’s had a couple comments back. It’s good for the sport, that rivalry. Like, I’m Nick Kyrgios and I’m a rival to Rafael Nadal. How? Like how is that possible? I think it’s exciting for the sport, do you know what I mean? That’s what people should be talking about. And my career’s 1/40th of what he’s done and we’re rivals because of that little back and forth that was nothing.”