Why the Nadal-Kyrgios match at Wimbledon is so full of drama

Kyrgios annoyed when asked about feud with Rafa (0:56)

Nick Kyrgios gets agitated after a reporter asks him about his apparent feud with second-round opponent Rafael Nadal and Nadal's uncle. (0:56)

LONDON -- Describing his relationship with Rafael Nadal after his first-round win at Wimbledon on Tuesday, Nick Kyrgios invoked the name of the most popular pub in Wimbledon Village.

"Um, not sure that me and Rafa could go down to the Dog & Fox and have a beer together," Kyrgios said, sending pencils scratching across reporters' notepads. "I don't know him very well. I don't know what you want me to say to the question [about our relationship]. It's a very strange question."

Not really, given the players' history at Wimbledon. Kyrgios, the 24-year-old Aussie who made his Grand Slam bones the first time he played at Wimbledon (he was ranked No. 144), with a stunning upset of No. 2 seed Nadal in 2014, is also building a legendary reputation for squandering his talent. Nadal is merely legendary, the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles compared to zero for his rival.

But Kyrgios knows how to get under Nadal's skin, and the Aussie's knack for asymmetrical warfare -- the scooped forehand, drop-shot approach shots, balls hit while looking in the other direction and extreme changes of pace (he morphs from junkballer to fireballer in nothing flat) -- are contrivances that can drive Nadal batty.

The players will meet Thursday in the most hotly anticipated second-round match at Wimbledon, with the already high-octane pairing boosted by a few heated exchanges via the media in the past few months.

"What he lacks is a little respect for the public, for his rival and also for himself," Nadal said of Kyrgios in February, following a dramatic loss in Acapulco during which Kyrgios dipped deep into his bag of tricks and disruptive tactics.

Kyrgios fired back: "He doesn't know me. So I'm not going to listen at all. That's the way I play. The way he plays, he's very slow between points."

In tennis, in which players tend to tiptoe around one another, that amounted to serious trash talk. Things got worse when Nadal's uncle, Toni Nadal, got involved after the exchange. He said, among other things: "[Kyrgios] lacks education and smartness. He should be fighting for the top rankings, and instead, he is No. 40."

Kyrgios kept his powder dry until he unloaded in the No Challenges Remaining podcast in May. He called Toni Nadal an "idiot" and labeled Rafa "super salty."

But the seasoning was decidedly mild after Nadal won his first-round match at Wimbledon. Coming off the court, he was asked about the war of words with Kyrgios. Nadal replied: "I'm too old for all this stuff now. What I said I said, and it's something because I believe it. I am not a guy gonna be in a fight with nobody. I am here to enjoy my sport."

Nadal's enjoyment of the sport precludes going out to pubs during tournaments. He probably thinks the Dog & Fox is an animal hospital. Kyrgios is known to jet ski and play FIFA late into the night during tournaments. Nadal is more likely to be cloistered, polishing up one or another of his Grand Slam trophies before going to bed.

All that would seem to give Nadal an enormous advantage going into Thursday's match. But Kyrgios is as fearless as he is reckless, and that can be unnerving for a player who has had trouble with him. In the four Wimbledon tournaments between 2012 and 2015, Nadal lost to a player ranked No. 100 or lower every year (Kyrgios was the lowest ranked among them). It was mostly because those stylists were able to slice and dice and attack in a way that's most effective on grass -- a way that's also comfortable for Kyrgios.

"I know if I play the right type of tennis, I can have success against him," Kyrgios said. "I have to come with the right attitude. I have to be willing to fight. If not, it's going to be butter for him."

The challenge for Kyrgios will be to sustain the aggressive spirit and attitude he alluded to throughout five sets against perhaps the most unrelenting of opponents. Beating Nadal will also call for great reserves of stamina. The outlook, based on Kyrgios' first match, was not entirely encouraging.

Kyrgios is prone to dragging around, then exploding to life in a show of remarkable athleticism. There were times during his first-round win over compatriot and friend Jordan Thompson that Kyrgios looked as if he were on the verge of collapsing. He took a medical timeout to work his left hamstring and stalked around as if every bone in his body hurt and hot coals rather than cool turf were under his feet. He did, finally, collapse -- into his courtside chair shortly after he won the five-set affair in 3 hours, 26 minutes. That's a long match but by no means the kind of marathon Nadal routinely survives.

"It's sore, my friend, very sore," Kyrgios said of his body after his win. "It was a physical match. Especially on the grass, which is a little bit slower this year. There were a lot more rallies.

"I'm a physical specimen, so don't worry about it," he added with a smile.

While Kyrgios entertained the crowd and extended his match to the limit, Nadal was at his brutally efficient best in eliminating qualifier Yuichi Sugita in two hours. Nadal knows that having to play Kyrgios in Round 2 is yet another twist in what has become his convoluted career plot at Wimbledon. Ironically, the matchup probably wouldn't have happened if not for the fact that Roger Federer was elevated to the No. 2 seed at Wimbledon, even though Nadal holds the higher ranking.

Nadal certainly seems snakebit at Wimbledon, but it might be the residue of circumstances as much as plain bad luck. He believes the struggles he has experienced on Wimbledon grass are linked to his long history of injury. "For some years, my injuries didn't give me a chance to compete the way I would like," he said. "But now with my knees better, I am competing better on grass."

Those knees, prone to tendinitis, complain on the grass and attest to the unique nature of the surface, even in this era when the Wimbledon courts are so often compared to hard courts. Nadal explained that while hard courts might be the most punishing on the knees, grass is the most demanding. The relatively soft nature of the surface calls for the most powerful of push-offs -- especially during directional changes.

"I will not say this surface is very hard for my knees," he said. "But to play tennis when my knees are not in good shape, probably this one is the worst one."

Nadal has a good idea of what is in store from Kyrgios.

"My thoughts are very clear, no?" Nadal said. "I play against a top-talent player, a very dangerous player when he wants to play tennis. Normally against the best players, he wants to play tennis. When that happens, he's a very dangerous opponent."

Kyrgios confirmed that analysis. As much as he sometimes acts like a rodeo clown who wandered into the wrong arena, the sight of a big name adjacent to his in the draw gets his strict, undivided attention. He said he was "super happy" to see Nadal in his quarter of the draw.

"I can't wait," Kyrgios said. "I mean, it's more exciting. When you're a kid, you want to play the best players in the world on, I think, the best court in the world. This is something that I can't take for granted. There's no guarantee I'm going to be here again in this position. Could have an injury or something like that. I'm going to grasp with both hands, go out there, give it my best shot."

That best shot is likely to contain any number of surprises from Kyrgios, from underarm serves to diving volleys (called for or not) to tweeners to various other shots more often deployed by those old-timers on public parks who are sneeringly referred to as "hackers" or "pushers." In that, as in many behavioral aspects, Kyrgios is one of the very few players who is willing to throw away the proverbial Professional Tennis Player's Instruction Manual and Guide to Etiquette.

Nadal isn't taking Kyrgios lightly. He acknowledged that despite the vast disparity in their accomplishments, this second-round match will be "super tough."

"I need to be at my 100 percent," Nadal said. "And I'm going to fight for it."