When the match finally ended at 12:57 a.m., the crowd was on its feet. But Nick Kyrgios had no celebration left in him.
It was the ragged aftermath of two showmen at their best.
Kyrgios and Tiafoe gave the Citi Open its match of the tournament Friday night, a battle royal full of laughter, fury and electrifying tennis. Kyrgios triumphed 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (14-12), 6-2 to advance to the second semifinal of his career in Washington, against Mikael Ymer on Saturday.
Kyrgios won it, paradoxically, by doing just enough. The 27-year-old Aussie is more naturally talented than Tiafoe, but the 24-year-old Hyattsville native evened the playing field Friday in the pair’s first meeting with a boisterous hometown crowd and sheer willpower in the first two sets.
It wasn’t Kyrgios’s clever shot-making that sealed the match. After a breathless second-set tiebreaker left Tiafoe furious with himself for letting five match points slip away, Kyrgios employed the type of poise usually used against him.
He gathered himself, leaned on his biggest weapon — his serve — and put his racket in the right place at the right time.
“That’s all I did, I put myself in a position to stay in the match and I felt my experience — he was getting the crowd up and involved early on, might have wasted a little bit of energy early, and it’s tough conditions out here,” Kyrgios said. “It really weighs on you, you lose a lot of fluids out here, and my serve at the end kicked up to another gear. I felt like I had fresh legs at the end, Serving 130 [mph] in these conditions is pretty helpful.”
Helpful? Only if you consider serving 35 aces an additive.
Aside from his serve, Kyrgios attributed an aloof mind-set to his ability to pull out the match. Tiafoe was playing in the first Citi Open quarterfinal of his career with all the support and pressure that comes with playing in front of a hometown crowd. Kyrgios said afterward he never minds losing to a player he respects — “At the end of the day, if I lose, I lose, I’m going to shake that person’s hand and say, ‘Too good.’ ”
Kyrgios nearly ended up doing just that. The match stretched for 2 hours 29 minutes and was so close, especially through the first two sets, that Kyrgios won just 11 more points than Tiafoe, 116-105. He won 16 service games to Tiafoe’s 14. Both won 81 percent of points on their first serve. No one led by more than a point in the second-set tiebreaker until the end.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to lose,” Kyrgios said.
It was the first meeting between the two friends, a day Kyrgios said he had been anticipating for some five years. The pair are former doubles partners and kindred spirits on the ATP Tour, two believers in the value of a spectacle.
They peppered the opening set with crowd-pleasing moments. In the sixth game, Kyrgios had Tiafoe on a string and seemed to be pulling him back and forth across the baseline partly as a strategy and partly to show the crowd how fast Tiafoe can go. When Kyrgios finally won the point, he gave his opponent a cheeky grin and a shrug, to which Tiafoe responded with a look of fake disdain, drawing laughs throughout the stadium.
But there was no mistaking how seriously both players were taking the match.
Kyrgios raced to a 4-1 edge in a first-set tiebreaker, but momentum turned on a 136-mph laser of an ace from Tiafoe that cut Kyrgios’s advantage to 5-4.
Tiafoe then turned defense into offense on a precise approach shot to win the next point, his full arsenal on display in his second match of the day. Kyrgios double-faulted to give Tiafoe an edge and he served an ace to close out the first set — the first Kyrgios had dropped in fourth matches.
Tiafoe can’t match Kyrgios’s shot-making ability, but he had the tighter game for the first half of the match Friday, meeting Kyrgios’s power and edging him in consistency. Krygios’s defense is offense; Tiafoe has the fitness, patience and deft hands to run down ball after ball in a long rally and more often than not conjures the necessary shot to finish it.
But he faltered when it mattered most. The mental anguish of the second set tiebreaker appeared to sap his energy and his inability to convert any of his five match points seemed to distract him.
Tiafoe, like Kyrgios, was playing his second match of the day thanks to weather delays, and crumpled in the third set.
Kyrgios, on the other hand, held on just long enough.
“It wasn’t easy, to be honest. I played early this morning and the heat was not ideal, but I came out fast and strong …” Kyrgios said. “I knew it was going to be crazy, so I’m just glad that today’s over and I get some rest. Finally.”