Making sense of nearly headless Nick
Last Sunday, when Nick Kyrgios triumphed at the ATP 500 Citi Open in Washington, he appeared to have turned over a new leaf. “I came here for six days and competed every day,” he told the press, after clinching his second Tour title this year and sixth overall. “This is probably my most memorable title, honestly. Just looking back at some of the places I’ve been, it’s crazy to think how much I’ve turned it around.”
Less than 72 hours later, the 24-year-old left the Montreal Masters in a state of spontaneous combustion, chastising the chair umpire for not giving him a white towel instead of the tournament’s branded one, while losing in the first round in straight sets to Brit Kyle Edmund.
This has been Kyrgios in a nutshell — glorious and reckless at once — ever since he blew Rafael Nadal off Centre Court at his first Wimbledon in 2014 with a nerveless, free-spirited performance. The men’s Tour has been thirsty for the maverick Australian to come good, only for the player to remain completely detached and oblivious to it.
Kyrgios has long had the tennis. Nobody who beats Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in their first-ever meetings is to be underestimated. John McEnroe even called him the “most talented player he had seen in the last decade.” A booming and remarkably intelligent serve, a fierce forehand and a steady backhand do make for a competent mix. Casual on the court, almost to the point of indifference, he doesn’t quite play the accepted baseline patterns, but instead forces those across the net to improvise.
Like many Australians, he is a natural at sport, gifted with explosive athleticism, a long wingspan and a superb vertical jump, all top basketball tenets easily transferable to tennis. Then there are the trick shots — front-facing tweener, patented underhand serve, drop shot while falling backward, no-look cross-court volley and a jump-forehand modelled on badminton’s jump-smash.
But temperament has been his bane. With a game and character so tightly wound, it doesn’t require much — the latest being the ‘white towel’ — to force him into a downward spiral. He loves the big stage, wants camaraderie on court — the reason behind his love for doubles and basketball — and wants to feed off crowds with the flair of a showman. Tennis though is ambivalent to such demands, prizing as it does the solitary grind.
“I never have a problem getting up for the big matches,” Kyrgios admitted. “It’s more the smaller matches and smaller tournaments. Against Rafa Nadal, it’s easy to get up. Big-name opponent. Centre court. Huge challenge. I love that. It’s against the lower-ranked guys on the back courts where I can’t get it together and tank.”
“I don’t know if any coach can get into this head,” said 18-time Major champion Chris Evert. “He is not agreeable. He is his own person. We can only stand by and marvel at his talent and appreciate his big wins. I don’t know how much of hunger, focus, commitment can be taught. Until it gets into his persona, heart and conscious[ness], we are not going to see the best of Nick.”
It is something Kyrgios knows just as well. “I’m a great tennis player, but I don’t do the other stuff,” he said after losing to Nadal over four competitive sets this Wimbledon. “I’m not the most professional guy. I won’t train day in, day out. So there’s a lot of things I need to improve to get to the level that Rafa, Novak and Roger are [at].”
However, the latest implosion in Montreal notwithstanding, 2019 has seen a different Kyrgios. The tantrums haven’t gone away completely; in May, he was defaulted at the Rome Masters for hurling a chair across the court. But in terms of tennis, there has been a shift.
Where in Acapulco in February he won by beating Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, John Isner and Alexander Zverev consecutively — the kind of big-name opponents who charge him up — at the Citi Open he overcame four run-of-the-mill players before peaking to defeat World No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 9 Daniil Medvedev. As a seeded player at the Slams — which he will be in the forthcoming U.S. Open, courtesy his rise up the rankings to No. 27 — this is what is required.
“A lot of habits needed to change,” Kyrgios said at Washington. “I’m not going into the details, but I had a lot of unhealthy habits, and it was starting to show. So I think it came from within that I just wanted to start being better as a tennis player and as a person.”
Coming from Kyrgios, these words can seem suspect. After all, there is no better example than the man himself to prove that one or two weeks never conclusively turns things around. But being forthright is his greatest quality and the attempt looks earnest.
“Growing up, I was a very overweight kid and got told by coaches, teachers that I wasn’t going to be very good [at tennis],” he said. “I feel like I’m proving a lot of people wrong. At the same time, I’m trying not to change myself, like playing ping pong with kids before I play. I want to have fun and be the entertainer. I’ve beaten each of the best tennis players doing it my way and I’m never going to stop doing that.”