EXPLAINER: Nick Kyrgios' bizarre feud with Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic

Chris Young
Sports Reporter

Nick Kyrgios is known as one of international tennis’ crankiest characters, and nobody has caught his ire more than Rafael Nadal.

The two make for interesting sparring partners - one competitor rich with potential, with some prized scalps under his belt but a volatile personality that impedes his as much as it fuels him.

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The other is undeniably one of the best three players of his generation - a monumental, consistent talent whose career has come to be defined by his temperament, as well as his utter domination on clay.

Perhaps it was put best by Gerald Marzorati in the New Yorker - Kyrgios the entertainer versus Nadal the champion.

Kyrgios has often complained of being misunderstood - of Kyrgios, Nadal has said his talent is being wasted.

Nadal isn’t the only champion Kyrgios has locked horns with - Novak Djokovic is a frequent target of Kyrgios’ antics, hinting at bad blood between those two as well.

Ever since Wimbledon in 2019, all bets were off as far as the relationship between the pair. The animosity was palpable, a would-be challenger to the throne frustrated by the incumbent’s unwillingness to budge.

So what kicked off their feud?

Kyrgios defeats Nadal in spiteful Mexico Open match

Something must have been brewing Nick Kyrgios’ mind before the Mexico Open in February last year, because he had a little bit extra in him when he took on Nadal in Acapulco.

Back in the world rankings at no.72, Kyrgios pulled every trick out of his back, including an underarm serve, to save three match points and defeat Nadal 3-6 7-6 (7-2) 7-6 (8-6) in a fairly stunning comeback victory.

Kyrgios’ triumph was notable in its own right, but it was the way he directed his anger at the Spaniard throughout that made headlines for days afterwards.

Nadal became increasingly irritated throughout the match as Kyrgios complained to the umpire about how long his opponent was taking to be ready for his serve.

After the match, and in comments Nadal would later attempt to walk back, the Spaniard told reporters Kyrgios was very talented, but he ‘lacks respect for the public, the rival and towards himself’, and that this was why the Australian had never progressed higher in the rankings than 13th - achieved in October 2016.

Kyrgios seemed to brush the comments off at the time, saying the rules were clear about playing to the speed of the server, that Nadal took an exceptionally long time between points.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

But a week later, the whole thing would kick off again.

Nadal’s uncle Toni reignites feud, says Kyrgios ‘lacks education’

With the exception of a mild potshot from Kyrgios on Instagram, Kyrgios and Nadal’s beef seemed to be left back in Mexico.

That lasted about a week, before Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach, more or less double down on his nephew’s comments - just as the then world no.1 was trying to hose them down.

As Rafael attempted to defuse the situation by claiming some of his comments after the Mexico loss had been misinterpreted, his uncle Toni was telling Spanish media Kyrgios was too ‘disrespectful’ to ever be a champion.

“Rafa is totally right,” Toni said in an interview with Radio Marca.

“He lacks education and smartness.

“He should be fighting for the top rankings and instead, he is No. 40.

“He does not look like a bad guy but he has been disrespectful too many times to get back on track.”

Needless to say, this did not go down well with Kyrgios.

Kyrgios takes aim at Nadal, Novak Djokovic in Wimbledon podcast

Things seemed to have died down for a little while after Toni Nadal stoked the fire - until Kyrgios decided enough was enough in a stunning interview with veteran tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg on his No Challenges Remaining podcast.

With the tennis world well and truly in the spotlight, Kyrgios took aim not only at Nadal, but also Novak Djokovic, labelling the former ‘salty’ and saying he ‘can’t stand him’ of the latter.

He also labelled Toni Nadal an ‘idiot’

“He’s my polar opposite, like literally my polar opposite. And he’s super salty,” Kyrgios said of Nadal.

““Every time I’ve beaten him … when he wins, it’s fine. He won’t say anything bad, he’ll credit the opponent, ‘He was a great player’. But as soon as I beat him, it’s just like, ‘He has no respect for me, my fans and no respect to the game’.

“And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? I literally played this way when I beat you the other previous times and nothing changed, nothing changed. When you beat me in Rome here a couple of years ago, nothing changed; I was the same person’.

“It’s not a good look for you, I feel. And then Uncle Toni came out saying, ‘He lacks education’. I’m like, ‘Bra, I did 12 years at school, you idiot. I’m very educated. I understand that you’re upset I beat your family again’.”

Kyrgios wasn’t done there though, putting the heat on Novak Djokovic in the same interview.

Nick Kyrgios (middle) has spent the better part of a year antagonising perennial champions Novak Djokovic (left) and Rafael Nadal (right) - to varying degrees of success. Pictures: Getty Images

In another series of controversial remarks, Kyrgios said the Serbian star ‘just wanted to be liked’.

“I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked. He just wants to be like Roger. For me personally – I don’t care right now, I’ve come this far – I feel like he just wants to be liked so much that I just can’t stand him,” Kyrgios said.

“This whole celebration thing that he does after matches, it’s like so cringeworthy. It’s very cringeworthy.

“He’s an unbelievable player, he’s a champion of the sport; one of the greatest we’ll ever see. He probably will, honestly, I reckon he will get the Grand Slam count, I reckon he will overpass Federer.

“No matter how many Grand Slams he wins, he will never be the greatest for me. Simply because, I’ve played him twice and like, I’m sorry, but if you can’t beat me, you’re not the greatest of all time.”

It was an explosive precursor to what would go on to be a memorable Wimbledon, nor would it be the last of Kyrgios and Nadal’s squabbling.

Nadal outclasses Kyrgios in Wimbledon showdown

In a poetic twist of fate, the duo were matched up against each other in the second round.

Billed as a massive speed bump for Nadal, the Spaniard rode out a second-set scare and won two tie-breaks on the way to a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/3) win.

There was to be no repeat of Kyrgios’ famous 2014 Wimbledon victory over Nadal, with the Spain

Kyrgios was again frustrated by Nadal’s pedestrian play, but this time chair umpire Damien Dumusois was having none of it, ultimately leading the Australian to lash out at him and Nadal after the match.

At one point Kyrgios slammed a body shot into Nadal, later refusing to apologise for the act.

“I think he can take a ball to the chest, bro. I'm not going to apologise to him at all,” Kyrgios said.

"I was going for him. Yeah, I wanted to hit him square in the chest. Like, he's got decent hands."

For his part, Nadal attempted to play it down, saying he didn’t mind being hit by the ball but was concerned it might rebound and hit someone in the crowd (yes, he said that).

Kyrgios’ bizarre wedding potshot

After Wimbledon, things again seemed to cool off. The two didn’t meet again in 2019, but Kyrgios looked to have been paying attention when Nadal married long-time partner Xisca Perello in October.

Instead of wishing Nadal congratulations, Kyrgios decided to take a sly dig at the Spaniard.

Kyrgios posted the video of him body-shotting Nadal at Wimbledon the day of his rival’s wedding, prompting some fans to label the Australian ‘obsessed’ with the stoush.

Djokovic feud reignites at ATP Cup

While much of Kyrgios’ attention was focused on Nadal in 2019, in 2020 Kyrgios began the decade by needling the other target of his scorn, Novak Djokovic.

Kyrgios clearly hadn’t changed his opinion to the Serbian star between Wimbledon and the ATP Cup, showing up to Serbia’s rubber against France.

Every Djokovic error was met with jeers and heckles from the Kyrgios camp, as was every French point - not that it mattered in the end, with Serbia eventually winning the first iteration of the tournament.

Djokovic never publicly addressed Kyrgios’ Wimbledon comments, and the most provocative thing he did was like an Instagram post quoting criticism of the Australian from John McEnroe.

Stage set for spicy Australian Open

While Kyrgios has fuelled much of the beef between himself and his two rivals, most would argue it’s he who has the most to prove - despite boasting a strong head to head record against both Nadal and Djokovic.

He’s got a few wins under his belt against both, but Kyrgios needs to prove he can win it all on the biggest stage before he truly gets under the skin of his biggest rivals.

Will he get it done at his home Grand Slam then? Only time will tell.