Club and ATP players will know what it feels like to compete against a specific rival. The combination of respective styles, tactical preferences, appetite for risk, and technical ability gives a particular “flavour” to matches when playing the same opponent repeatedly.
For Federer versus Nadal, their matches can be broadly summated as elegance pitted against grit. With Federer versus Djokovic, it’s aggression and risk against a more cautious percentage-base game. But when it comes to Federer versus Kyrgios, it’s perhaps the closest they come to playing themselves; both are immensely gifted. These matches are about the execution of raw talent against another raw talent.
On the surface, Federer and Kyrgios don’t look that similar. Their results are very different, with Federer holding 103 career titles to Kyrgios’s 6. On grand slam count, Federer has 20 majors, Kyrgios has nil.
Both also possess diverse, likeable personalities – from Federer’s easy Swiss charm to Kyrgios’s more boisterous Aussie humour.
But aside from these features, there are parallels. Each player is incredibly technically able, especially in serving. While Kyrgios is known for his consistent power for shots down the “T”, Federer has mastery over precision.
Both like to play aggressively and have a large appetite for risk and hitting winners. Federer and Kyrgios carry a certain nonchalance about them and often toy around with opponents during a rally before swiftly winning the point.
Both are known for their trick shots and are reliably able to hit tweeners. Most importantly, each can use their skills and creativity to get out of tricky situations – creativity that some players don’t possess. Instead of making a forced error, a winner will come out of nowhere when least expected.
The result of combining all these features in the same match is that their head-to-head encounters are rapidly-paced affairs, played with aggression and flair. The drop shot, in particular, is one tactic that makes a continued appearance. F
Federer and Kyrgios have professionally met each other four times on the ATP Tour, with an additional three times during Laver Cup events. Federer has won 6 times, while Kyrgios has won once. Nevertheless, the scoreline has been tight, with their first six sets resulting in tiebreaks.
2015 Madrid Masters – Kyrgios (6-72, 7-65, 7-612)
In the Spring heat of Madrid, Kyrgios faced Federer in the Round of 32. He is completely unphased at opposing a man he continues to call the GOAT; Kyrgios let rip on his groundstrokes. The Aussie often targeted Roger’s one-handed backhand in rallies, which was weaker on the clay because of the higher bounce.
On breaking Federer’s serve in the first game, Kyrgios let out a wild roar. The aggression continued, with Kyrgios booming down flat serves. Federer was able to deal with most of the serves down the “T” but struggled with balls out-wide due to the great angle Kyrgios achieved from his height.
Both players ripped up the clay-court rule book, attempting regular net trips and serving-plus-one tactics for a quick point. Kyrgios is one of the rare players who can effectively move Federer laterally across the baseline, with a sweeping command of ball direction from both the backhand and forehand sides. Federer began to grunt during the extended rallies, a testament to Kyrgios’s staying power in longer exchanges and his ability to at times dominate Roger.
Federer responded with some high-risk tactics that paid off – a drop shot played from the baseline followed by an impressive stretch volley to end the point, or a backhand winner hit down the line, on the run, with zero margin for error. In a complete role-reversal to what Federer was used to, the final tiebreak had Kyrgios drop-shotting Federer after an extended rally, setting up his first match point. Kyrgios won the match after an unforced error from his opponent, who looked genuinely appreciative at witnessing the Australian’s emerging talent.
2017 Miami Masters – Federer (7-66, 6-79, 7-65)
Federer’s Miami semi-final against Kyrgios is my favourite match of all time. This was the height of Roger’s powers during his 2017 comeback.
After five years of not winning a slam, Federer had won the Australian Open in January and was now playing commanding tennis in the Sunshine Double. A key feature of Federer’s game at this time was the neo-backhand.
A flatter, more powerful, and earlier shot, the Swiss had become more confident on that wing and employed the stroke regularly for winners. Federer used the backhand with more assurance, hitting into open space or attempting audacious shots inside-out or down the line, which took Kyrgios completely by surprise.
It is of great credit to Kyrgios that he was able to push Federer to three tiebreak sets when the Swiss was on such commanding form. Kyrgios pulled out his own tricks with a mischievous tweener passing Federer at the net after chasing a short ball. The Australian also increased his level of risk, effectively serving his first serve twice after faulting and aiming for more acute angles on his forehand.
Compared to Madrid, Federer was more able in dealing with the Kyrgios serve. He calmly and smoothly blocked back the fast-paced balls and remained mentally confident while under such firepower.
Federer’s game became more athletic, lithely covering the net when Kyrgios attempted a passing shot as the match went on. In the last tiebreak that decided the match, Federer had pulled Kyrgios out-wide, who had responded with a weak ball. Federer pounced on the opportunity and nimbly paced to the net, hitting a groundstroke in the forecourt. But Kyrgios was waiting behind the baseline and slammed a flat forehand right by his opponent’s chest. Yet Kyrgios’s efforts swiftly deflected by a reflex volley from Federer, instantly winning him the point. With a well-placed serve out-wide to Kyrgios’s backhand, Federer elicited an error and won the match.
2018 Stuttgart – Federer (6-72, 6-2, 7-65)
Naturally, while playing his opponent on grass, Federer served and volleyed to great effect. He was able to neutralise and hit into open court any shots that Kyrgios whipped by in passing attempts.
Kyrgios remained bold, even attempting a SABR against its creator, but was aced. Kyrgios also demonstrated good net game, carefully building the point and pushing Federer deep behind the baseline before coming into a volley.
The grass slickened Kyrgios’s serve, and he hit a few aces against Federer. But often, even after Kyrgios was able to put Federer on the defensive following a powerful serve, he remained lethal. Federer could still hit winners down the line when it looked like Kyrgios had the advantage.
Both players remained light-footed and were able to physically keep up with the rally speeds of the grass court. With a touch of flair, Kyrgios was able to hit a drop shot while moving backwards, but Federer read the shot selection early and was able to get to the ball for a backhand slice.
Similar to Miami, Federer was one step ahead of Kyrgios in the forecourt and volleyed the ball away after a brief face-to-face duel at the net. In rally situations, Kyrgios had more success than at the net, his flat backhand staying low to the ground, making it difficult for Federer to pick up and return.
After a daring serve and half-volley from Kyrgios, Federer quickly reacted and hit a chip lob over his opponent’s head. The shot won him the match and secured a return to the number 1 ranking.
Federer and Kyrgios remind us that modern tennis doesn’t have to be boring. Their amazing talent undoubtedly has contributed to producing some visually spectacular matches. But a boldness in their performance, a variety in their tactics, and a certain nonchalance are encouraging for club players.
Stirring matches can be had by going for winners, playing aggressively, or trying creative shots, regardless of technical ability. When drawn together in a match, each brings out the raw talent in the other as the only way to make a breakthrough in rallies.
Continued paring in singles matches for successive Laver Cup tournaments shows their head-to-head matches remain a treat to see. Hopefully, that’s something Federer and Kyrgios won’t be giving up any time this year.