Nick Kyrgios may be struggling to shake the bad-boy image, but it’s having little effect on his charge toward the top echelon of men’s tennis.
The world No.20 took down his fifth top-10 ranked opponent of 2016 on Wednesday, eclipsing world No.10 Milos Raonic 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 in the second round of the Rome Masters.
Only world No.1 Novak Djokovic – 12-0 – has bettered 21-year-old Kyrgios (5-4) for wins against top-10 opponents this year.
He has the chance to add another big-name scalp in his third round clash with clay king and seven-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal, where a win would not only set up a likely quarter-final stoush with Djokovic but also provide a huge boost ahead of the French Open starting in just over a week.
While he continues to be caught up in off-court dramas that appear to be more of countryman Bernard Tomic’s making, Kyrgios’ efforts in Rome are hardly a flash in the pan.
He has reached at least the last eight in five of the six tournaments he has contested since the Australian Open – a run that includes a maiden ATP Tour title in Marseille and semi-final appearances in Miami, Dubai and Estoril.
In that time, his ranking has rocketed from No.41 on February 1 to a career-high of 20 – making him Australia’s top-ranked singles player.
A further rise beckons on Monday no matter the result against world No.5 Nadal.
Kyrgios sent down six aces in beating Raonic, the big-serving Canadian foundering badly in the second set as the Aussie broke him twice and comfortably claimed his third straight win over the opponent.
Nadal, who beat Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3 6-3, knows he will have his work cut out against Kyrgios, having lost their only previous encounter at Wimbledon in 2014.
“Tomorrow is a tough match against a player that is for sure one of the best players of the world,” Nadal said.
“He played well today against a tough opponent like Milos Raonic, so it will be a tough match for me.
“I need to be playing very well tomorrow, and it’s an opportunity to play against a great player. I’m excited about it.”
Roger Federer put his full array of shots on display in a 6-3 7-5 win over Alexander Zverev, an encouraging performance considering he only decided to play moments before stepping onto the court due to a back problem.
Federer will next meet 13th-seeded Dominic Thiem, who beat Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-3 6-2, but he couldn’t immediately confirm that he would play Thursday.
Top-ranked Djokovic, Andy Murray and Nadal also advanced in straight sets.