After Wednesday’s Australia Day celebrations, there was more national pride on show on Thursday as Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis forged through to the doubles final at Melbourne Park.
Riding a wave of support on Rod Laver Arena, the so-called “Special Ks” took out their Spanish-speaking opponents – Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos – in straight sets.
And just to add to the sense of patriotic satisfaction, their opponents in Saturday’s final will be another unseeded pair of Aussies: Matt Ebden and Max Purcell. It is the first time since 1980 that four home players have contested the Australian Open’s trophy match.
As this tournament has progressed, Kyrgios has transformed himself from a flashy maverick into a more consistent and dedicated performer, inspired by the desire to support his old friend Kokkinakis.
Yes, he did hit one tweener during this entertaining 7-6, 6-4 victory over the No 3 seeds, but in general he was here to win rather than to grandstand.
Kyrgios and Kokkinakis had been “ruffling feathers” – to borrow Kokkinakis’s phrase – during their previous wins, especially the ones staged on the 5,000-seat Kia Arena.
That small but perfectly-formed stadium turned into a real bearpit – or perhaps a “bro-pit”, thanks to all the young Australian men who gathered to yell “Siuu” (Cristiano Ronaldo’s patented goal celebration) at Kyrgios every time he won a point.
But the upgrade to Rod Laver Arena – which can hold three times as many people – made for a friendlier atmosphere, because the playing surface is far larger and the fans were not right on top of the players.
“I think the balance was there today,” Kyrgios said afterwards. “The quality of tennis was amazing. I think the festival atmosphere was still there. I think they [the opponents] embraced it. They knew it was an incredible atmosphere. Zeballos took a selfie with us before we walked out.”
Kyrgios being Kyrgios, there were still a couple of moments that would have had the All England Club blazers choking on their Pimms. He complained more than once about excitable fans shouting out just before he served.
During the first set, he bit back verbally at an offender, describing him as “numbnuts”. Then, when he felt as if further shouts had contributed to him dropping his serve in the the second set – a rare occurrence for one of the most lethal servers in the game – he smashed his racket and held up a middle finger to the stands.
Kyrgios also bit back at New Zealand’s doubles specialist Michael Venus, who had described him as an “absolute k–b” with the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old after Tuesday’s feisty quarter-final.
“As to Michael Venus, I’m not going to destroy him in this media conference room right now,” said Kyrgios. “But Zeballos and Granollers are singles players. They’ve had great careers. I respect them a lot more than I respect Michael Venus.”
When asked about his blend of daring shot-making and extrovert crowd interaction, Kyrgios spoke of his desire to sell the sport. This doubles event has arguably outshone the singles – an unprecedented development at a modern grand slam.
“I think the Australian Open, for the sport, we need more attention, we need more viewers,” said Kyrgios. “My goal is to only bring new fans that may not be following tennis to watch tennis.
“If they flick on a match and they have Thanasi and I playing in an entertaining doubles match, [and] they know nothing about tennis, if they watch that match, they probably would tune in next time. That’s what I’m about. That’s what I want to bring. I think that’s how the sport is going to survive.”
Asked another question about the balance between sport and entertainment, Kyrgios cited his former achievements as a singles player, where he has won six ATP titles but never gone beyond the quarter-final of a slam.
“I think I played pretty good tennis in the past,” he said. “I’ve beaten pretty much every player that’s picked up a racket. It’s not like I’m going out there putting on a clown suit and creating a circus. I have also played, won titles, won big titles, I have played the traditional way. I think now I’m able to channel a different, like, fan base.”
In the other semi-final, Britain’s last representative in Melbourne – doubles specialist Joe Salisbury – admitted that he was surprised by the lack of spectators.
There were only 90-odd people on the cavernous Margaret Court Arena for the start of this match, even though Salisbury was up against an Australian pairing, because everyone had gone to watch the K-drama on the adjacent Rod Laver Arena instead.
Partly as a consequence of the deathly-quiet atmosphere, Salisbury and his American partner Rajeev Ram started out flat. Although they discovered a little more fluency as the match wore on, they missed four points to win the second-set tie-break and eventually went down by a 6-3, 7-6 margin.
“It would have been fun to play in it,” said Salisbury, as he rued the missed opportunity of a major final against Kyrgios and Kokkinakis. “It would have been a great atmosphere and you don’t often get to play in front of that. I think it would have been tough but we’d obviously have liked to have that opportunity.”