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Nick Kyrgios sideshow rolls on with straight-sets defeat of JJ Wolf

Nick Kyrgios continued his stirring progression in New York in an off-Broadway setting at Flushing Meadows on Friday night. As Serena Williams, the 23-time grand slam champion, was sent into retirement by fellow Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, Kyrgios was blitzing JJ Wolf by 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in 1hr 55m on nearby Louis Armstrong Stadium.

In a normal US Open, a Friday night outing on Armstrong would scarcely be a sideshow, such is the electric vibe that can be felt on a court that is grand in its own right. Kyrgios is the best supporting actor to start the US Open and the Wimbledon finalist was never seriously challenged by Wolf, a hard-working wildcard entry.

But with the American underdog Wolf giving his all, the atmosphere was particularly lively. “Amazing. It was a very tough match for me. I know J.J is a hometown favourite, so I really had to be on my guard today,” Kyrgios said.

The pending retirement of Williams, confirmed with her gallant three set loss to Tomljanovic, has created record-breaking attendances at Flushing Meadows and also cast a giant shadow over everything else. This proved no different on Friday at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre, with an all-time daily record attendance of 72,039 making their way to outer Queens to farewell a legend.

Kyrgios said he was fully aware of the defining moment in tennis unfolding nearby as he seized control of the third round match against Wolf. “It is a special moment,” Kyrgios reflected. “I think myself and JJ looked up at the screen. She has had a career I think no-one else will emulate.”

But Kyrgios’s time as second-fiddle in New York will end on Sunday after he set up a clash with defending champion and world No 1 Daniil Medvedev. The Australian has won three of their four outings, including in the recent Montreal Masters, though Medvedev defeated him in four sets at the Australian Open in January.

Kyrgios’s triumph did not come in the biggest match of the night. But it did provide further evidence of the Canberran’s maturity, with the 23rd seed retaining his focus throughout to reach the last 16 for the first time in New York.

Some of his shot play was stunning and so too was his byplay with the crowd. From a stationary moonwalk after a brilliant backhand passing shot in the third set to winding his arm in an exaggerated celebration after a lob, he looked like he wanted to be nowhere else other than on a tennis court.

Kyrgios and Wolf stepped on to the court looking as though they could easily have been pulled straight from a promotional photographic shoot for a soft rock boy band. The Australian sported a shimmering necklace to accessorise his sculpted facial hair and basketball-styled outfit while Wolf wore a large silver crucifix dangling from a chain outside his white tank top.

But the leading man in this band was clearly Kyrgios, who ultimately had far too many weapons for his rival to contend with.

The seven-time ATP Tour title winner made his initial move in the fifth game of the match and the point with which he seized the break was perfectly executed. A return bunted deliberately short drew Wolf forward, leaving him vulnerable to the forehand lob the major contender flicked over his head.

Kyrgios was celebrating the service break before the lob landed, executing a big wave of his right arm before wagging a finger in delight as he danced to his courtside chair.

His return of serve is a skill that is greatly improved and a reason why he is recording consistently strong results in 2022, which includes a recent run to a title in Washington.

The 27-year-old possesses one of the best serves tennis has seen. It rates highly in all facets on an ATP Tour database, both this season but also over the past three decades.

The Australian has always been a laggard in return statistics. His overall rating is still low, with Kyrgios ranked 63rd of the 75 players tracked over the past 12 months. But he is now breaking opponents regularly, with Kyrgios winning five of the 11 on offer against Wolf. He sits in the top 20 this year for the conversion of break points.

Kyrgios said he had made a point of focusing on improving his return, mindful of the benefits that could stem from it.

“I’ve definitely worked on it every training session,” he said. “Obviously the stats don’t lie. Numbers never lie. So I’m really happy with that.”

Earlier, Australia’s top-ranked man Alex de Minaur was beaten by 12th seed Pablo Carreno-Busta 6-1 6-1 3-6 7-6 (5).

After being dominated early in the third round match by the recent Montreal Masters champion, de Minaur showed great fight to make the match a true contest. But a flukey lob struck by the Spaniard between his legs on match point denied de Minaur.

The Australian was initially furious with his misfortune and threw his racket in anguish but later lamented the fact he was unable to have an impact early in the match.

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