/ 5 August 2019

Nick Kyrgios can play, he just doesn’t want to

Nick Kyrigios at the Citi Open.
Nick Kyrigios at the Citi Open. (Rob Carr/M&G)



Nick Kyrgios has one of those personalities people want to punch. He is an uncouth, overgrown brat who has no regard for his talent, his opponents or the game — or for the rarefied among us who see in tennis metaphors for navigating elegantly the trials, tribulations and triumphs of life. Why does he bother playing?

“Nick Kyrgios, if you don’t want to be a professional tennis player, do something else.” Those words are from John McEnroe, who is often described erroneously as the Kyrgios of his generation.

The thing is, McEnroe won things. Wimbledon in 1981, 1983 and 1984, and the US Open in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1984. He reached the Australian Open semifinals on Melbourne’s then grass courts in 1983 and the final on Roland Garros’ red clay a year later. In all, McEnroe won 77 singles titles and one more than that as part of a doubles pair, including nine Majors. He was a fixture in the top 10 for nine years and finished the year as world No. 1 from 1981 to 1984. He spent 170 weeks as, officially, the best men’s tennis player on the planet.

So he threw a few racquets, verbally abused a few officials and conformed perfectly to the stereotype of the uncouth, overgrown brat from a family who had more money than manners. So what? The kid could play and every tantrum was a desperate attempt to attain the perfection he knew was beyond him or anyone else. Not that that was going to stop him from seeking it out. More than anything else, McEnroe wanted to win.

Kyrgios? Five singles titles, a quarterfinal at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, two third-round exits at the French Open and another three at Flushing Meadows. And that’s it. He has yet to crack the top 10 – the highest ranking he’s achieved is 13 – and was at 52 in the ATP singles ranking at the time of publishing.

‘Is tennis really that important?’

Worse than that, as Kyrgios himself said after he crashed out of Wimbledon this year in a streetfight of a second-round four-setter against Rafael Nadal: “At the end of the day it’s tennis, man. Like, is it really that important?”

Two years ago he owned up, in effect, to throwing matches by not playing as well as he could have because sometimes he would “rather be doing something else than play tennis”.

Quiet please …

For his own sake, it’s best Kyrgios isn’t allowed to speak for himself. In the Nadal match, he said quite enough by serving underarm and whipping a ball at his opponent’s sternum. Afterwards, the Spaniard said: “Without really loving this game that much, it is difficult to achieve important things.”

Go on. Nod. You know you want to. Just like you know you want to smack Kyrgios upside the head, especially when he behaves like this in press conferences: “You looked way too excited to have asked that question. You must have a really boring life.”

That was in response to the first question tossed at him after the Nadal match, and it was quite some question: “Do you regret going to the pub last night? Do you think you could have played a bit better if you hadn’t?”

Kyrgios had indeed been in the Dog & Fox, a regular Wimbledon boozer, the previous evening. Until 11.30pm! Scandal! Turns out one of the reporters at the presser had been there, too. Scandal? Only if they had turned up for work not hungover. Australians aren’t exactly known for their decorum, on or off the field or court. What did they think of their compatriot?

“He’s the worst kind of advertisement for Australia and Australians,” an Aussie said in a London café the day after Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer in five sets in this year’s Wimbledon final. Djokovic prevailed 13-12 in the fifth, which featured the first final-set tiebreaker in the tournament’s history.

“He’s got talent but he’s stupid and he’s got stupid parents, and that’s not helping him. This will not end well.”

So far, so expected. But what Kyrgios says when he is shown the same respect as other players is significantly less prominently reported. Could you analyse the Nadal match, please Nick?

“I thought I started a little slow, he played really well. I knew his game plan. I got on to it pretty quickly. He directed most of his serves to my forehand, and he hasn’t really done that in the past. It’s definitely my weaker return.

“So he was trying to stay away from my backhand. But on big points he played well, and when Rafa plays well he hits his forehand extremely well. Today he was on fire with that shot. Every time he redirected, he was hitting balls just within the line.

“I thought it was a high-level match. In the two tiebreaks I hit a couple of loose points here and there. Against a player like that, that’s all it takes.”

The antithesis of Federer

Respectful. Insightful. Not remotely without couth. And unlikely to hit headlines strewn with the flavourless tactical mush that can make covering tennis an exercise in joylessness. A spiky line from Kyrgios or another set of carefully lined up clichés from another player? The choice is easy for reporters.

He is the antithesis of the angel Gabriel of the modern game, Federer, and in his dark aura comparatively edgy figures like Djokovic and Nadal wilt into soulless, point-accumulating accountants of the court.

And we’ve not even looked at how well Kyrgios can play yet.

From the tweener he hits between his legs to his gossamer drop shot straight out of a fly fishing manual, his nuclear-tipped serve, and a forehand that sweeps from this week into the next and delivers the ball at warp speed. Put it all together and you’re looking at one of the finest, most watchable players around.

It’s just that Kyrgios doesn’t care if you watch him or not, and in every sense: Nickkyrgios.org remained resolutely down during the researching and writing of this story. Kyrgios doesn’t seem to think being able to play tennis makes him anything special.

And that’s what is really getting under sport’s skin. Particularly this sport, which prompted a writer as grand as David Foster-Wallace to produce a piece headlined as grandly as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in as grand a publication as The New York Times’ now defunct Play magazine in August 2006.

You didn’t need to read any further to know what followed, but here’s the opening paragraph anyway:

“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”

Kyrgios would cringe at the idea of inspiring that reaction. He would laugh and scoff at his admirers and tell them to get a life. Dude, WTF? It’s only tennis.

Is sport, which demands uncritical adulation of and from its heroes and villains alike, too stuck up to accept someone like Kyrgios? Or is he what every player in every sport wants to be, if only they were allowed to be: themselves?

Don’t ask him. He’ll tell you.

This article was first published by New Frame.