Nick Kyrgios can be an intoxicating talent on a tennis court. And one of the most polarizing figures in the game.
A sublime talent. A conundrum. A trickster. A supernova. A threat to win multiple Slams. A threat to implode at any given moment.
Is Nick Kyrgios a unique personality, a disrupter with little regard for tennis tradition and what others think he should be? Or is the Aussie a monumental squanderer of gifts rarely seen in tennis?
Many love him. They adore his (usually unnecessary) no-look tweeners. The way he steps to the line and bombs 135-mph deliveries – on second serves! The way he thumbs his nose at the tennis establishment. They think it’s cool how he doesn’t appear to give a damn.
Others wish he’d grow up already. Now 23, he ought to be long removed from the impetuous teen who claimed he’d prefer to be playing pro basketball. They’ve grown weary of his antics, his rude behavior on and off court, his dressing down of fans, officials and other players. They’d like for him to give the impression that he does care about his chosen profession.
Almost all tennis fans, though, love his preternatural skills on a tennis court: the casually whipped forehand slingshots, the feathery touch, the loose-limbed cannon serve. But it might be nice to appreciate those talents without all the tiresome baggage and psychodrama.
“He is very entertaining,” said Parth Shah, 23, of New Jersey, who watched Kyrgios on Thursday for the second time. “He makes it seem like an everyday guy playing tennis.
“As a fan, you can easily get frustrated, you never known when he will turn it on, or not. It’s part of the package that he brings,” Shah continued.
Several times Kyrgios has been sanctioned for bad behavior and a lack of effort on court. At Queens Club earlier this year, he was fined for an obscene gesture with a water bottle on a changeover. In Shanghai in 2016, he was censured for tanking a match, as well as verbal abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct, drawing an eight-week suspension and a $41,500 fine. And in 2015, officials fined Kyrgios the maximum, $10,000, for making a comment about Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend, the women’s pro Donna Vekic, in the midst of a match with the Swiss.
In a second-round match at this year’s US Open, the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, abandoned his chair to plead with Kyrgios to get his head in the game. Said Kyrgios, essentially admitting to questionable effort, “The umpire was like, ‘Nick, you can't be doing this. It's a bad look.’”
Kyrgios has no coach to keep him in line, and he hasn’t for years. His practice routine is reportedly negligible. Anyone who’s seen play a number of times has probably seen him go on walkabouts – not to the Australian bush but some other, mental hinterland — in the middle of a match.
“I’m surprised he’s the 30th seed,” said Lari Anderson, 75, of Virginia. “”Physically, he’s No. 5 or 6. Mentally, more like 50th – so maybe his seed averages out!”
Anderson continued to watch the Australian’s match with Pierre-Hugues Herbert, even though Kyrgios looked like he would rather be anywhere else. “We’re still here because of him,” said Anderson. “Because when he’s good, he’s great. And when he’s not, he’s like a little child.”
Kyrgios can certainly be churlish and cantankerous. He is known for Twitter feuds with other players (including Vekic and Stefanos Tsitsipas just in recent weeks) and even reporters. On-court he has instigated foul-mouthed entanglements with umpires and fans.
At his most recent press conference, a journalist noted that some in the crowd were booing him early in the match. Did that bother him? “I love it,” Kyrgios claimed. “You know, when I was up 40-Love at the end, I put my ear to the crowd, just want to hear them boo again. I loved it.”
When asked to assess his strengths as a player, a clearly sarcastic Kyrgios said, “My unbelievable movement, my return and my mental strength.” And with that he dropped the mic and left the press conference.
Kyrgios is clickbait online. He has more than one million followers on Instagram. When usopen.org posted a video of a Kyrgios tweener on Instagram earlier this week, a debate broke out in the comments section.
“The greatest tennis talent of all time,” said andrewl5059. “Brings the excitement and panache of basketball to the tennis court.”
“I’m so over this guy’s dismissive attitude toward the game,” countered mamapatti55. “It’s too bad, really, because he’s got so much natural tennis talent. But he’s just so unpleasant.”
A commenter with the handle summerb1978 went deeper. “He’s afraid of losing while giving 100% ‘serious’ effort, hence the IDGAF attitude and trick shots. I hope he can one day overcome that fear cuz he sure is talented.”
John McEnroe, who has said Kyrgios is the player he would most like to coach, agrees. "His problem is fear of failure,” McEnroe said in July. “He is afraid to compete, to give his best, to lay it on the line and come up short. That's Nick Kyrgios's problem.”
Is Nick Kyrgios simply his own person, someone who needs the on-court antics, the outbursts and distractions to relax and defuse the pressures and grind of being a top player on tour? Or might he, in fact, be fearful of really engaging and committing himself?
Is it self-protection or self-sabotage? Has Kyrgios used a cloak of cool and iconoclasm to deflect from self-doubt? Or is he easily bored? Does he attempt trick shots and ill-advised winners merely to entertain himself and maintain interest on court when it’s flagging?
It’s probably a futile exercise to try and psychoanalyze Kyrgios. Does Nick Kyrgios even known what does or doesn’t motivate him?
We’ve seen him fully engaged before, and it’s a stunning spectacle.
He seems to reserve those truly committed performances for those he deems worthy of his talents: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios beat all three the first time he played them.
The Aussie again plays Federer Saturday, in the third round of the year’s last Slam. All of their previous matches have gone to a final-set tiebreak.
Kyrgios hasn’t been beyond the fourth round at a Slam in 2018. In fact, he’s only been to the quarterfinals at two majors, at Wimbledon in 2014 (where he beat Nadal as a 19-year-old wild card) and the 2015 Australian Open. Still just 23, he’s hardly had a middling career by most players’ standards. Kyrgios has been ranked as high as No. 13. He owns four ATP titles. He’s earned millions.
His achievements and immense talent combined with an enigmatic and occasionally off-putting personality make the matter of assessing him as a person and player all the more vexing.
Do we the public, other players, commentators and coaches have a right to demand that Nick Kyrgios apply himself the way we want him to? Or do we just take what we get, which is what Kyrgios gives us, and appreciate him as the, er, unique talent that he is?
It certainly seems reasonable that a player of Kyrgios’s caliber would have advanced to a semi or final of a major at this point in his career. Everyone believes he should be contending for Slams.
Regardless of anyone’s opinion about Nick Kyrgios, in pure tennis terms his third-round match against Roger Federer should be a barn burner. Expect Kyrgios – on at least this occasion, facing Fed – to bring it. Expect the New York City crowd to be engaged.