The Strange Life and Times of Nick Kyrgios

It’s been an interesting week for Nick Kyrgios. On Sunday, he beat Belgian David Goffin in a highly entertaining three-set encounter to take the first 500-level event of his career in Tokyo. He entered the Shanghai masters with his first top-15 ranking, and had a fantastic opportunity to gain major ground in the race for the top 8 to London. All signs pointed to Kyrgios’ star on the rise. Then the Mischa Zverev match happened.

To say Kyrgios tanked would be a bigger understatement than saying Donald Trump is struggling to appeal to women. A second round encounter against the world no. 110, this wasn’t a case of him not showing up, as much as it was him trying his hardest to get out of there. You’ve seen the “highlights” by now – lollipopped serves, wild swings, conceding points before they were over – in a career already with multiple on-court low points, it has to be his lowest yet, and it’s only compounded by the promise he showed in Tokyo.

Kyrgios’ 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory on Sunday really was a fascinating match. Goffin plays a game that is, for better and worse, everything Kyrgios’ is not – he plays frenetic defence, chasing everything down while Kyrgios never really gets off the attack, his serve is merely useful while Kyrgios’ is a true-match saving weapon, his backhand is lethal while Kyrgios’ is the weakest part of his game, and his forehand, while good on the attack, can’t compete with the heavy topspin Kyrgios’ bludgeoning technique gives him on every ball. Goffin could very well have won that match, but Kyrgios simply didn’t allow him to.

The first set was all Goffin. The Belgian was brilliant at extending rallies, getting enough depth on his groundstrokes to keep Kyrgios pinned behind the baseline, while forcing him to hit to the Belgian’s favoured backhand side, where he could step into the ball and use it to paint the sidelines. The break seemed inevitable, and right on time at 3-3, Goffin found his rhythm blunting the Kyrgios serve, which combined with his baseline advantage was enough to break and take the set. The match was on the Belgian’s racquet… so what changed?kyrgiostokyo

Basically, Kyrgios found the rhythm to match his talent. His hand-eye coordination is otherworldly, and that means he doesn’t need to up his level, or his effort, he just has to start middling it to win matches. He served his way out of jail a ridiculous amount of times (including five break points-saved at 1-1 in the 2nd set), while those same lengthy rallies that would end with a Goffin backhand would now come down to forehand exchanges, and the Belgian simply had no answer to Kyrgios’ brutal topspin. It was still very close, but while Goffin’s continued doggedness brought him plenty of momentum-changing opportunities, Kyrgios’ fearlessness allowed him to take control more-often-than-not.

Had Kyrgios not imploded in Shanghai three days later, this piece would’ve entirely been about the good he’d shown in lifting that trophy. It was a match that showed just how damn talented the bloke is, which makes it so disappointing that he overshadowed himself with his antics against Zverev. It’s just so nonsensical. He’d beaten no. 29 Sam Querrey in the first round a day earlier, so it wasn’t like he had made a conscious decision to immediately bail on the tournament, and had fatigue just caught up with him, he wouldn’t have been the first player to pull out of a match under such circumstances. The only “good” explanation – besides match fixing, which if true is kind of genius in a so-crazy-it-could-work kind of way – is that he still has days where he doesn’t feel like playing tennis, and that’s a big problem for someone who plays it professionally.

Kyrgios has spoken in the past of his love-hate relationship with tennis, and performances like Wednesday’s would seem to confirm that this is far from a job he enjoys. The thing is, it’s actually okay to not want to play, and more importantly, he doesn’t owe it to any of us to reach the sort of expectations the Tokyo title implies. He can work as hard or as little as he wants to, it’s his life, and as an individual sport, he has no professional obligations in that regard either. The obligation he does have however, is when he actually steps onto a court in front of paying customers, to at least try to give a good account of himself. He clearly doesn’t understand that when he does these things, people don’t get the time or money back they’ve already invested. The fans and media aren’t out to get him, he’s the one slagging them off, of course they’re going to be angry.

There’s no denying that given what he’s accomplished already – Two grand slam quarterfinals before his 20th birthday, wins over multiple top-10 players, a top 15 ranking at 21 – it will be disappointing if winning a 500 is the peak of his career, but it’s understandable if Kyrgios doesn’t share those concerns. The same can’t be said for the anger he’s received after Wednesday. Between competing and withdrawing he somehow came up with another option that hurt everybody (except maybe Mischa Zverev), and ruined all the good he did on Sunday. He’s already one of the sport’s premier entertainers, it would be so easy to appreciate – if not like – him with just a marginal change in his approach. Will that happen? Now? Soon? Ever? Who knows? Such is the enigma of Nick Kyrgios.

Captain Lleyton to the rescue? Not so fast.

Hewitt-Federer-tw-700x450The general consensus with Lleyton Hewitt’s appointment as Australia’s Davis Cup captain seems to be that he’s the man who can finally reel in our young knuckleheads. But if there’s any man who knows the importance of embracing their inner dickhead, it’s Lleyton Hewitt.

Back in August, Australia’s “next great hope” Nick Kyrgios made headlines for informing Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka of his eskimo brotherhood with fellow Aussie Thanassi Kokkinakis in the middle of a match at the Montreal Masters. Coincidentally, this came just after Hewitt had entered into an ongoing mentorship role with the 20-year-old, who has had a history of on-court tantrums.

The hope at the time, as it seems to be now, is that Hewitt, having had a similar attitude problem at the same age, would be a calming influence on Kyrgios, getting him focused back on playing the sort of tennis that got him to two slam quarterfinals as a teenager.

Instead, Kyrgios seems about as temperamental as ever. About as unapologetic over the Wawrinka incident as Usher is for unleashing Justin Bieber on the world, Kyrgios proved determined to show he hadn’t learnt his lesson with three code violations in seven days between the Japan Open and Shanghai Masters. If Hewitt was to have an effect in the wake of Montreal, shouldn’t we have seen some improvement by now?

The explanation for why we haven’t is actually pretty simple: Hewitt isn’t interested in reigning Kyrgios – or Bernard Tomic for that matter – in at all. He actually alluded to this in his statements on Monday, where he acknowledged that Kyrgios has to “be who he is to a certain extent”, and why not? It certainly worked out well for Hewitt.

Winning the US Open in 2001 at the age of 20, Hewitt backed up that victory and his newfound number one ranking with a Wimbledon title in 2002 and another year-end finish in the top spot. This happened to coincide with his rise as one of world sport’s most disliked athletes – a tag he was still carrying around in 2006. And while Hewitt has certainly mellowed out in recent years, it doesn’t change the man he was when on top of the tennis world.

It seems like many Aussies are waiting on Kyrgios and Tomic to have the sort of “road to Jericho” moment that happened to another temperamental tennis prodigy, Roger Federer, but such a personality change is the exception – not the rule – as Hewitt’s own youthful success clearly shows. Looking not just at Federer, but Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it’s easy to forget that the even-tempered, selectively-passionate approach doesn’t work for everyone. Hewitt’s job here isn’t to give Kyrgios and Tomic and smack across the head as much as it is to push them in the right direction, helping them find their own balance between focus and passion. If he does manage to pull that off – and that’s a big if – the results could be extraordinary.