Nick Kyrgios’ media session the day before Wimbledon started three weeks ago could have been the pilot for a show on Netflix. The multiple Kyrgios contradictions were on display: he likes everyone to know that tennis takes itself too seriously while underlining that he cannot be bothered to take the sport and his prodigious talent seriously. “I don't want to be spending seven, eight months on the road anymore,” Kyrgios, who has described himself as a “part-time tennis player”, said. “Rankings and all that, it’s not something I chase. I’ve played top-10 players in the world this year and made them look pretty ordinary.” In fact, although the Australian has built up an excellent record against the world’s top players over the years, until Wimbledon he had beaten just one in an erratic 2022.
In the next breath, however, the 27-year-old was taking himself too seriously, magnifying his centrality to the sport while displaying the self-doubt that a couple of years ago pushed him into depression. “Yeah, it’s hard. Not many people have gotten over the hump of winning a slam. I'm one of the people that has to deal with that every week. Like, ‘Oh, he's probably one of the biggest wastes of talent. He should be winning a slam’.”
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But his confidence and charm almost simultaneously shone through that day as well. He said there was a chance he and his doubles partner, Thanasi Kokkinakis, might succeed in convincing the crowd to do a Ronaldo-inspired siuuu chant as they had during their win at the Australian Open in January, joking that nowhere in Britain is as much alcohol consumed as at Wimbledon. The Australian, who likes wearing black, mused about the All England Club departing from its all-white clothing traditions and pooh-poohed five-set doubles, another long-standing tradition, as “the stupidest thing ever”, something that players didn’t want to play and spectators didn’t want to watch.
For better or for worse, a Nick Kyrgios biographical docudrama is almost certainly in tennis’ future. Indeed, during the Australian Open in January and Wimbledon this month, it has seemed in 2022 as if the Nick Kyrgios show has been live-streaming worldwide, provoking dinner-table arguments and discussions at bars like little else in tennis—apart from Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia in January. Beyond the ups and downs of its legendary but aging big three—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – Kyrgios, metaphorically and occasionally literally, is always centre-stage in tennis, even when he loses early. Despite falling out of the top 100 in 2022 because of his reduced schedule and erratic form and a current ranking of 40 in the world, Kyrgios is widely viewed as tennis’ most entertaining player, a reputation that shone last week when he pushed Novak Djokovic to four high-quality sets in the Wimbledon finals.
The strong performance at Wimbledon came not a moment too soon as many were beginning to write Kyrgios off as his ranking sank and a reprise of the form he showed when knocking at the doors of the top ten six years ago seemed to be a receding prospect. Even so, paradoxically—and almost everything about the Australian’s place in the sport is paradoxical—the former world junior number one’s run at Wimbledon also seemed preordained. As New York Times contributor Michael Steinberger, author of a revealing Kyrgios profile in 2016, told me this week, “I am surprised but not surprised. I always thought that he would make at least one serious run at a major…there would be at least one fortnight in which his head got out of the way and allowed his talent to truly punch through. But I didn't think it would take this long.”
The lead paragraphs of that seminal New York Times profile offered plenty of evidence of why Kyrgios is also the sport’s most celebrated under-achiever. It depicted him arriving at practice courts in Florida with two junior tennis players, aged 13 and 14, with whom he had become inseparable over their shared addiction for Pokemon Go, the popular mobile game, while musing about the importance of balancing his tennis training with Pokemon. Kyrgios has famously never hired a full-time coach. Last week, Kyrgios said he had approached Wimbledon this year with more seriousness than usual but had not practised more than an hour a day.
Yet it is at Wimbledon over the years where the best and worst of Kyrgios has been on display. Now 27, he shot to fame as a 19-year-old defeating Nadal in four sets on Centre Court in 2014 to reach the quarterfinals. He then lost to the Canadian Milos Raonic after winning the first set and being up a break of serve in the second. The following year, after losing an evenly contested first set against hometown favourite Andy Murray, he infuriated the crowd and commentators such as John McEnroe by appearing to give up. He admitted later that he had spent the morning playing video games.
A few years later, he outdid even that for unsuitable preparation. Ahead of a match with Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon in 2019, after he had beaten the Spaniard in an ill-tempered encounter in Acapulco earlier that year, Kyrgios spent most of the night at a nearby pub, leaving at 4 a.m. Nadal had said in Mexico that the Australian lacked respect for his opponent, the crowd and his own talent.
Wimbledon this year saw a more serious Kyrgios while the obnoxious one was on display as well. Tellingly, he said he had concentrated on going to bed early and had not allowed himself a beer, which from any other player might have seemed like stating the obvious in terms of preparation. In his third-round match with the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, he set out to bait his opponent and succeeded spectacularly. After the Greek fourth seed hit a ball into the crowd in temper, Kyrgios launched into a tirade against the umpire for not defaulting his opponent. (At the Australian Open this year, he smacked a ball into the stands so hard that a small boy struck by it began crying, prompting Kyrgios to gift him a racket to loud cheers from the crowd.)
Kyrgios began his Wimbledon final on Sunday in sparkling form but even such a setting did little to douse his desire to show he was still just having fun, even if it meant losing the point by using his frivolous underarm serve. But as good as Djokovic was in retrieving what would have been winners against anyone else, Kyrgios almost stole the show, if not the title. His serve was as explosive as ever, his volleys so delicate they seemed a throwback to another era. He changed direction on his groundstrokes so abruptly and so fast that he might as well have been playing a video game. After it was over, Djokovic paid rich tribute to Kyrgios as one of the great talents of the sport and said he would be back in a final again. The younger Kyrgios baited Djokovic, calling him a phoney; this year, however, he showed maturity and courage defending the Serb amid the deportation court hearings in Australia. The two have since become good friends. Djokovic charmingly pronounced the relationship “ officially a bromance”.
Along with the rise of Carlos Alcaraz, 19, who beat Nadal and Djokovic in Madrid in May and is now entrenched in the top ten, the question is whether Kyrgios’ lazy, on-again, off-again relationship with tennis might, at last, be turning into a professional pursuit, but this may be wishful thinking. “Are we seeing a more committed and consistent Nick Kyrgios? Who knows”, Steinberger says. “We would all like to think that Kyrgios, at the age of 27, has finally decided that he no longer wishes to squander his enormous talent.”
A brighter future for tennis as the big three age actually depends on it as other Next Gen players such as Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev are nowhere near as popular as Kyrgios or Alcaraz. Unusually, Kyrgios sounds as if he enjoyed committing to the sport he plays so well after his fairy-tale fortnight. “I look back at it and I'm just like, ‘How am I here? How am I here?’ You know, it's pretty cool,” he said after the final.
For the Australian, being cool has always been the ultimate ambition. If training seriously and concentrating harder mean more "cool" wins as it did at Wimbledon, he --and tennis -- could have the best of both worlds.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.
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