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With minimal theatrics, Nick Kyrgios marches into two Citi Open finals

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/7/2022 Liz Clarke
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 06: Nick Kyrgios of Australia hits a forehand against Mikael Ymer of Sweden (not pictured) during the Citi Open at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in Washington, DC on August 6, 2022. (Photo by Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post) © Scott Taetsch/For The Washington Post WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 06: Nick Kyrgios of Australia hits a forehand against Mikael Ymer of Sweden (not pictured) during the Citi Open at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in Washington, DC on August 6, 2022. (Photo by Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post)

At the top levels of professional tennis, reaching back-to-back tournament finals hardly equates to career-long consistency.

But in the case of Nick Kyrgios, whose talent has long outstripped his results, it is an encouraging step forward. That’s the step Kyrgios took Saturday at Washington’s Citi Open, where he defeated Sweden’s Mikael Ymer, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, to clinch a spot in Sunday’s final.

His opponent will be Yoshihito Nishioka, who pulled off a stunning upset in beating the tournament’s top seed, Andrey Rublev, 6-3, 6-4.

As that match unfolded on Stadium Court, Kyrgios returned to action on a secondary court after a short break to win his doubles semifinal with American Jack Sock. With their victory over Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, they’ll contest the Citi Open’s doubles final Sunday night against Ivan Dodig and Austin Krajicek, giving Kyrgios a chance at leaving town with two trophies.

Washington’s hard-court classic is Kyrgios’s first singles tournament since he pushed the victorious Novak Djokovic to four sets in Wimbledon’s championship on July 10. While contesting his first Grand Slam final represented a career achievement, Kyrgios said Saturday that he regarded what’s now at stake for him in Washington’s Citi Open as equally meaningful.

“Look, for me, if I am able to take home the trophy tomorrow in both the events, it’s probably going to be my favorite week of my career so far,” Kyrgios said during his post-match news conference. “It’s going to overtake the Wimbledon final, for sure. I don’t think it’s been done too many times where someone has collected both singles and doubles trophies, never here, so that’s something that’s going to be super special to me.”

For the left-handed Nishioka, 26, it was his third career victory over a top-10 player. And it propelled him to his first appearance in a tournament final on the top pro tour since February 2020.

He earned his spot the hard way, winning five matches in five days against Jenson Brooksby, Alex De Minaur, Karen Khachanov, Dan Evans and Rublev.

“I think I wasn’t thinking that much,” Nishioka said of his mind-set against eighth-ranked Rublev. “Actually, like some days, I don’t care win or lose — just play the tennis, and we will see how it’s going.”

Since arriving in Washington last week, Kyrgios, 27, has declared himself transformed — in his best physical shape in years, in what he describes as a healthy relationship and supported by a tight, trusted trio that consists of his girlfriend, agent and trainer who have cheered him through every match at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center.

“At the end of the day I think, you know, this is just a kind of result of the last six months I think for me, the amount of work I have done,” Kyrgios said after his doubles match. “You know, consciously trying to every day get into good habits, be positive, try to work on new things on court."

With a place in Sunday’s final at stake, Kyrgios comported himself well against Ymer.

If fans came to see emotional outbursts, Kyrgios didn’t indulge them. He muttered throughout the match, as he often does, but the chiding was primarily at himself — the inner dialogue of a man irked with himself, only voiced out loud.

He engaged in minimal theatrics — including two between-the-legs shots, when a higher percentage shot was available. Both were ill-advised; both essentially gift-wrapped the point for Ymer, 23, a wiry Swede of Ethiopian heritage who has impressed this week, outlasting former No. 1 Andy Murray in the opening round and No. 15 seed Aslan Karatsev in the second round.

Each match Ymer won in reaching Saturday’s semifinal went the full three sets. And in his first career meeting with Kyrgios, Ymer signaled that he was a player with serious skill, focus and tenacity.

Kyrgios, who said he didn’t get to sleep until 4:50 a.m. after having to play two singles matches Friday, credited Ymer with making him work hard and “play the extra ball.”

“I wasn’t expecting him to be that fast,” Kyrgios said of Ymer. “He was lightning.”

He needed to all that to have a chance against Kyrgios, the Citi Open’s 2019 champion.

When his head is in the game, what makes Kyrgios a handful is his massive serve and broad array of shots and pace. In an eyeblink, he can flick a sharply angled cross-court volley with a deft touch or rip a backhand passing shot down the line.

And when his serve is clicking, as it was in a thrilling Friday night quarterfinal against Francis Tiafoe, whom he bombarded with 35 aces, there is little an opponent can do except back up — back way up, almost to the fence — and hope for the best.

Saturday’s semifinal got underway shortly after 7 p.m. on a pleasant evening with a gentle breeze.

Kyrgios mixed up the pace in the early going, presumably to keep Ymer off-balance as he felt out his young opponent’s strengths. But Ymer kept his head down and hung in the rallies, while Kyrgios slammed a few too many balls in the net or sent them well wide or beyond the lines.

Ymer doesn’t have the biggest serve, but Kyrgios didn’t exactly pounce on it. For stretches, it seemed Kyrgios was more interested in extending points than winning them.

The score knotted at 4-4 in the first set, Kyrgios drifted toward the net seemingly without a clear plan, and Ymer ripped a merciless passing shot as if to underscore that he was not to be trifled with.

A tiebreaker was needed to settle it, and Kyrgios claimed it — getting a mini-break by hanging in to claim what proved the longest rally of the match.

In a deadlocked second set, Kyrgios finally broke Ymer’s serve in the eighth game and served out the match with relative ease.

His celebration was restrained: Just a clenched fist, a glance of satisfaction to his guest box, and a handshake and pat on the back for Ymer.

Ranked No. 63, Kyrgios didn’t qualify for a first-round bye in the Citi Open’s 48-player draw. He had little trouble with his early-round opponents, breezing in to third round without conceding a set.

Friday’s backlogged schedule presented his first major challenge — finishing a rain-halted third-round match against Reilly Opelka in the early afternoon, then returning in the evening for what proved the best match of the tournament — a 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (14-12), 6-2 victory over Tiafoe in which he fended off five match points in the second-set tiebreaker.

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