At no time did James Keothavong leave his chair. This time, in Nick Kyrgios’ third-round U.S. Open match, there were no screwball moments resembling the sight, two days earlier, of another chair umpire paying a visit to Kyrgios during a changeover to urge some commitment to the proceedings. Keothavong stayed in his little tower and stuck to calling balls and strikes.
Kyrgios, a man who walks — shoulders scrunched up — as if in severe neck pain, at times appeared so flatfooted that he indeed seemed not to care on this occasion, either. He dumped balls into the net and sent shots sailing wide. He often appeared to be going about his business half-heartedly. And, once he failed to convert four break points at 3-3 in the first set, his chances of victory beat a hasty retreat.
But, possibly more to the point than the “wasted talent” accusation that has been hung on the 23-year-old Kyrgiosi — in part because he occasionally has admitted that he is “not dedicated at all” to the sport — was the fact that, on Saturday, Kyrgios was playing 20-time major-tournament champion Roger Federer. At Federer’s best.
So Kyrgios was steamrolled, 6-4, 6-1, 7-5.
For Kyrgios, that was like walking into a burning building, with the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd solidly and noisily behind Federer. He kept the heat on with searing passing shots, struck 16 aces, won 87 percent first-serve points, won points on 21 points of 25 trips to the net. And he repeatedly ran down Kyrgios’ dastardly drop-shot attempts, including one at such a severe angle in the third set that Federer had to send his winning shot around the net post.
“I was trying to tell him that the shot wasn’t that good,” Kyrgios kidded. “No, it was almost unreal. Almost got to the point where I wanted him to start making shots like that. I’m probably going to place that one on Instagram.”
Over and over Federer, five times the Open champion and currently seeded No. 2 behind defending champion Rafael Nadal, left Kyrgios frozen in place, unable to do anything but watch a Federer precise winner land far out of reach. While Federer constantly was positioned to parry Kyrgios’ shots, Kyrgios gave no indication of such anticipation.
Federer claimed that, against an unpredictable player such as the 30th-seeded Kyrgios, “you have to be the consistent guy, rather than being the flashy guy, because he has a tendency to throw in the odd shot you don’t normally see.”
In fact, Federer was both the more consistent and flashier of the two throughout the match. He seldom has appeared more dominant. “He was too good,” Kyrgios said. “Obviously not at my best, but that’s how he makes you play. He makes the court feel small at times.”
Kyrgios was asked whether there are things, beyond strictly tennis, to learn from Federer and acknowledged that, “the way he behaves on court, his demeanor, I could definitely take away some of that.” Kyrgios called Federer “the ultimate role model” but said, “I don’t want to change myself too much.”
He was asked, too, about the wisdom of continuing to work without a coach, but argued, “I think my tennis is more to do with the mental side of things rather than technique or tactics or anything like that.”
But, down a set and 0-3 in the second, the precise situation where chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani was accused of “coaching” or giving a pep talk to Kyrgios in his previous match, Krygios was heard to mutter something that sounded like, “I need to hire a coach.” Or, some who heard it thought, “I need an umpire to coach.”