Whiff of controversy: Nick Kyrgios complains of marijuana smell during US Open win over Benjamin Bonzi | Nick Kyrgios

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Hot heads, pot heads and the chugging of beer. It appeals as the type of vibrant New York scene that Nick Kyrgios would usually thrive in on court. But put a racket in his hand and things become unpredictable, as proved the case again for the Australian at the US Open on Wednesday before he found his groove late in the party.

For an extended period during his 7-6, (7-3) 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Benjamin Bonzi on Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Wimbledon finalist struggled for his best form. This was more due to the tenacity and resilience of his poker-faced rival, who held his emotions in check as the Australian’s temper frayed.

“I was literally hanging by a thread. His level today was incredible,” Kyrgios said. “I was not expecting an absolute way. I played some really risky tennis in the fourth set to get through.”

In a surreal moment, the Canberran complained to umpire Jaume Campistol about the smell of marijuana drifting down to the court as his rival raised the pressure late in the second set. The Australian was right, too, for the wafts of weed courtside were easy to smell. At one point Campistol requested fans refrain from smoking around a court carrying a strong party vibe.

Kyrgios said he was an asthmatic and was mindful the fumes might unbalance him. “People don’t know [it but] I’m a heavy asthmatic,” he said. “When I’m running side to side, I’m struggling to breathe, [so it is] probably not something I want to be breathing in between points.”

Louis Armstrong Stadium, which sits about 2km from where the iconic musician whose name graces the court resided for the last 28 years of his life, differs from the norm in tennis. Kyrgios is regularly accused of creating a circus on court, but sitting courtside on Armstrong feels akin to attending a carnival, particularly as sunny days extend into hot summer nights.

An award-winning revamp of the court, which reopened in 2018, features an open concourse between the lower terrace and nosebleed section which creates a distinctly unique aura. The enhanced ventilation is great for fans on sweltering summer days, but the gusts of breeze can prove trickier for tennis players trying to drop shots on a five cent piece.

The movement of people on the concourse is constant and so too is the loud hum from conversations being held in beer lines and food queues at the nearby restaurants. All this renders the usual rules of silence and being seated during a point almost irrelevant. There is a lot going on. For someone with Kyrgios’s disposition for distraction, the cumulative impact of the various elements adds degrees of difficulty to the task of winning a match.

If he can fray during a final at genteel Wimbledon, where an interaction with a fan there has prompted a legal issue for him, this was certainly an environment that would challenge him. The atmosphere, he said, was unique on the court. “I feel like Wimbledon was so proper. [The] Australian Open, you kind of expect it there, being an Aussie,” he said. “But here, it is just noisy. Point in, point out, I can barely hear. Half the time, I can’t even hear my team because it is so noisy all the time.

“In Armstrong today, hearing trains and people, for someone that’s struggled to focus in my career, I’m really trying hard to put my head down and play point by point, to try to dig myself out of certain situations. It’s hard because there’s a lot of distractions. Obviously a lot of heckling going on as well. People are saying things. I’ve got to be very careful with what I say these days.”

Kyrgios plays a shot between his legs. Photograph: Javier Garcia/REX/Shutterstock

There were moments of magic. Bonzi twice finished points face down on the court, separated from his racket, as he lunged for Kyrgios passing shots in the first set tiebreaker. The 23rd seed, who plays American wildcard JJ Wolf in the third round on Friday, did not serve as well as he has been during the most consistent season of his career. But Kyrgios still managed to strike 30 aces, some of them at critical times, and also produced some heady serving when facing several break points in the latter stages of the fourth set.

There were moments that were regretful. Spitting on the court after dropping serve at 4-all in the third set was less than desirable, so too berating his supports box for extended stints. Part of his frustration stems from rising expectations. Having reached a final at Wimbledon, he now believes he is capable of contending in every major that he plays if at his best.

“It has made life more stressful. Every tournament I play I am expecting to play amazing tennis,” he said. “Compared to last year … I feel like I am playing some of the best tennis in my life and that is down to a lot of things, but I am happy.”

Bonzi was a stubborn foe and provided Kyrgios with a test that should sharpen his form. The Frenchman is a year younger, but it was not until last year when he won six tournaments on the Challenger Tour that he earned passage to the main ranks. An extended stint in secondary ranks has toughened him up. He took the fight to Kyrgios, refusing to be discouraged after dropping the first two sets but will rue the opportunities that he went begging in the fourth.

Kyrgios lives to fight again. Should he defeat Wolf, he might well play world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev. It would be the match of the men’s tournament to date.

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