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Nick Kyrgios marches into Citi Open final with minimal theatrics


At the top levels of professional tennis, reaching back-to-back tournament finals hardly equates to career-long consistency.

But in the case of Nick Kyrgios, whose talent has long outstripped his results, it is an encouraging step forward. That’s the step Kyrgios took Saturday at Washington’s Citi Open, where he defeated Sweden’s Mikael Ymer, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, to clinch a spot in Sunday’s final.

His opponent will be Yoshihito Nishioka, who pulled off a stunning upset in beating the tournament’s top seed, Andrey Rublev, 6-3, 6-4. For Nishioka, 26, it was his third career victory over a top 10 player. And it propelled him to his first appearance in a tournament final on the top ranks of the pro tour since February 2020.

“I knew Andrey was going to play aggressive against me, so I needed to play aggressive, too,” Nishioka told ATP media during his on-court interview. “I wasn’t afraid of mistakes.”

Washington’s hard-court classic is Kyrgios’s first singles tournament since he pushed the victorious Novak Djokovic to four sets in Wimbledon’s championship July 10.

While Kyrgios was once the world No. 1 junior, it took him a decade amid the dominance of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to reach his first Grand Slam final last month. And on the hallowed Centre Court lawn, where Djokovic was the six-time and defending champion, Kyrgios was the better player for one set — an achievement he has taken to heart.

Since arriving in Washington last week, where he is playing both singles and doubles, Kyrgios has declared himself transformed — in his best physical shape in years, in what he describes as a healthy relationship and supported by a tight, trusted trio that consists of his girlfriend, agent and trainer who have cheered him through every match at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center.

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“I’m not doing anything to kind of hurt my performance,” Kyrgios said earlier this week. “I’m being professional, eating well, going to bed.”

With a place in Sunday’s final at stake, Kyrgios comported himself well against Ymer.

If fans came to see emotional outbursts, Kyrgios didn’t indulge them. He muttered throughout the match, as he often does, but the chiding was primarily at himself — the inner dialogue of man irked with himself, only voiced out loud.

He engaged in minimal theatrics — including two between-the-legs shots, when a higher percentage shot was available. Both were ill-advised; both essentially gift-wrapped the point for Ymer, 23, a wiry Swede of Ethiopian heritage who has impressed this week, outlasting former No. 1 Andy Murray in the opening round and No. 15 seed Aslan Karatsev in the second round.

Each match Ymer won in reaching Saturday’s semifinal went the full three sets. And in his first career meeting with Kyrgios, Ymer signaled that he was a player with serious skill, focus and tenacity.

“I didn’t play anywhere near my best tennis today,” Kyrgios told ATP media during an on-court interview, explaining that he didn’t get to sleep until 4:50 a.m. after having to play two matches Friday.

He credited Ymer with making him work hard and “play the extra ball.”

“I wasn’t expecting him to be that fast,” Kyrgios said of Ymer. “He was lightning.”

He needed all that to have a chance against Kyrgios, the Citi Open’s 2019 champion.

When his head is in the game, what makes Kyrgios a handful is his massive serve and broad array of shots and pace. In an eyeblink, he can flick a sharply angled cross-court volley with a deft touch or rip a backhand passing shot down the line.

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And when his serve is clicking, as it was against in a thrilling Friday night quarterfinal against Francis Tiafoe, who he bombarded with 35 aces, there is little an opponent can do except back up — back way up, almost to the fence — and hope for the best.

Saturday’s semifinal got underway shortly after 7 p.m. on a pleasant evening with a gentle breeze.

Kyrgios mixed up the pace in the early going, presumably to keep Ymer off-balance as he felt out his young opponent’s strengths. But Ymer kept his head down and hung in the rallies, while Kyrgios slammed a few too many balls in the net or sent them well wide or beyond the lines.

Ymer doesn’t have the biggest serve, but Kyrgios didn’t exactly pounce on it. For stretches, it seemed Kyrgios was more interested in extending points than winning them.

The score knotted at 4-4 in the first set, Kyrgios drifted toward the net seemingly without a clear plan, and Ymer ripped a merciless passing shot as if to underscore that he was not to be trifled with.

A tiebreaker was needed to settle it, and Kyrgios claimed it — getting a mini-break by hanging in to claim what proved the longest rally of the match.

In a deadlocked second set, Kyrgios finally broke Ymer’s serve in the eighth game and served out the match with relative ease.

His celebration was restrained: Just a clenched fist, a glance of satisfaction to his guest box, and a handshake and pat on the back for Ymer.

Ranked No. 63, Kyrgios didn’t qualify for a first-round bye in the Citi Open’s 48-player draw. He had little trouble with his early-round opponents, breezing in to third round without conceding a set.

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Friday’s backlogged schedule presented his first major challenge — finishing a rain-halted third-round match against Reilly Opelka in the early afternoon, then returning in the evening for what proved the best match of the tournament — a 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (14-12), 6-2 victory over Tiafoe in which he fended off five match points in the second-set tiebreaker.

Looking ahead to what remains of the 2022, Kyrgios acknowledged earlier in the week that he’d like to get his ranking up high enough to enjoy the perks of being a seeded player at tournaments.

By virtue of reaching Sunday’s final, he is projected to vault to No. 42. If he wins the title Sunday, he would climb to No. 37, in the ballpark of earning a seed at the U.S. Open.

After a short break following his one hour, 34-minute victory over Ymer, Kyrgios returned to action Saturday to contest his doubles semifinal with American Jack Sock. Their match against Frenchmen Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin was the nightcap on John Harris Court, while Rublev and Nishioka battled on Stadium Court.

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