They've met just once before. The young, brash Aussie Nick Kyrgios, at 20 years old one of the most gifted if not unpredictable talents the sport had seen in years, taking the court against perhaps the greatest player of all time: Swiss perfectionist Roger Federer. The site was the space age Caja-Magica, the occasion: a second-round Madrid Masters matchup.
Federer doesn't exactly have fond memories of that afternoon, May 6, 2015.
Not only did he miss his twin sons' (Leo and Lenny) birthday, he squandered two match points in the decisive tiebreaker to lose 6-7(2), 7-6(5), 7-6(12). It was only the second Top-5 win of Kyrgios' career.
"I was like, 'What a waste,'" recalled Federer on Wednesday at the BNP Paribas Open, after a 6-2, 6-3 win over rival Rafa Nadal set a rematch with Kyrgios. "That's how I felt."
"I remember the first game I broke him, and I said, 'COME ON!' pretty loud, just [so] he knew I would compete for every point that day," said Kyrgios, who has since become only the second player — after fellow Aussie and sometimes advisor Lleyton Hewitt -- to beat Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in their first tour-level meetings. "That was kind of surreal, playing him on center court. Winning was an unbelievable feeling. A lot's happened since then. I've played a lot more matches. I feel more confident in my game, and he's obviously playing unbelievable at the moment."
The conditions will be different this time around. They're going from clay and the thin air of Madrid to a hard court in the Southern California desert. But the tennis should be just as high quality. Both players have been serving the lights out in Indian Wells. In three matches, Kyrgios leads his ATP brethren in aces (30), first-serve points won (92 of 108, 85%) and service games won (30 for 30). Yes, you read that right: Kyrgios has yet to be broken, and he has only faced three break points. In his fourth-round 6-4, 7-6(3) upset of Djokovic, his second win over the No. 2 ranked Serb in less than two weeks, he controlled the match from beginning to end, firing 14 aces, including two on his second serve.
"It's been like that for a long time," said Kyrgios of his habit of going for broke on his second serve. "I've lost some matches from it, I've won some matches from it. I'm okay if I go for it. It's a high percentage for me to go big under pressure. That's my game style. If I miss, I miss, but I know I went down playing my game."
"I'm very impressed [about] him taking out Novak, back-to-back weeks, on Novak's best surface," observed Federer, who himself has yet to be broken and has only faced a single break point. "I hope it's going to lead to something great for Nick, that he realizes if he puts his head down and focuses that he can bring it day in and day out, week in and week out. That's maybe going to take a bit more time."
Much has happened since Kyrgios first faced Federer in Madrid. The son of a Malaysian mother and Greek father has had his issues both on court and off, most recently serving an eight-week suspension for match tanking. For his part, Federer, now 35, has undergone knee surgery, and after six months away from the sport returned in January to claim his historic 18th Slam title in Melbourne.
"I'm not surprised that he won the Australian Open," said Kyrgios. "When I see him winning tournaments, when I see him producing this level, it doesn't really surprise me at all. He's the greatest player of all time. Age is just a thing for him. As long as he stays healthy, he's going to be the top player."
"I'm happy it's not on the birthday of my boys," mused Federer of the rematch here at the BNP Paribas Open. "I'm happy my family is here. It's not anybody's birthday, and I can just focus on playing tennis. But I'm looking forward to it. He's a great player. Of course, I'd like to get him back."