Nicholas Hilmy Kyrgios is the twenty-three year Australian the tennis community refuses to embrace. He is their step-child, relegated with harsh words and steely gazes. The warm embrace of acceptance and support his peers have enjoyed is not his tennis experience. He is often described as: Volatile. Electric. Infuriating. Tempestuous. Precocious. Pugnacious. Petulant.
His every misdeed, misstep is magnified, deconstructed and career defining. His brand, has been solidified. He holds court in a space that other professional players have avoided though deserved. Fabio Fognini is adored in spite of his insane on-court antics. Marco Cecchinato’s French Open quarterfinal win over Djokovic was heralded and his 2016 match-fixing suspension forgotten. Karolina Pliskova’s fine for smashing a sizable hole in an umpire’s chair has not been disclosed. Shapovalov’s seven thousand dollar fine and disqualification for fracturing an umpire’s eye socket has disappeared from commentators’ memories. Yet, Kyrgios’ controversies have made him the bad boy. He has been trivialized on air and in print to the point of criminalization.
So why has the sport forsaken the über talented Kyrgios?
The child of a Greek father and a Malaysian mother, Kyrgios presents as an other. The six-four Australian does not live in a white body. Couple this with his lack of tennis comportment and we have a figure the sport cannot abide. He’s been labeled a problem child much like Bernard Tomic though it is clear that Kyrgios’ character and deeds are far different from his countryman’s. Kyrgios is fun-loving, kind, and respectful, mostly. His tour relationships and charity are rarely acknowledged.
He is rarely compared to his peers: A. Zverev, Thiem, Raonic or Shapovalov. They have been labeled the next generation, heir to the Big 4 (Federer, Murray, Nadal, Djokovic). Yet Kyrgios has the best record against the Big 4, winning eighty percent of his matches against Djokovic, Federer and Nadal; Murray has been out of competition with a hip injury. It is then troubling that he has only earned four singles titles (Marsailles, Atlanta, Tokyo and Brisbane) and reached two slam quarterfinals (Australian and Wimbledon).
Plagued by injuries and accusations of tanking and laziness, he has not crystallized his talent. He also has a growing list of injuries: back, shoulder, elbow… Like Kei Nishikori, Kyrgios is unable to string together enough wins, momentum, to propel himself to the business end of titles. Whether it is lack of interest, fitness or inherent physical issues, he is becoming injury prone. Curiously, his posture has always appeared flawed to the point of concern.
Off the tour for two and a half months with an elbow injury, he returned last week at the Mercedes Cup (Stuttgart). Unfortunately, he fell in the semi-finals to Federer in an uneven three setter 6(2)-7, 6-2, 7-6(5). But yesterday he halted Murray’s return 2-6, 7-6(4), 7-5 in the first round of Queens Club. With both a phenomenal serve and touch his style is unorthodox with too much flair for the old guard. The between the legs lobs, net rush serve and volleys and leaping forehands are too unconventional, funky.
When he is focused, his game is dynamic. If he loses a game, he points his rage inward and shuts down. It is not uncommon for him to totally lose his game for a set after a couple of errors. This signals the psyche of a struggling perfectionist. One who’s playing chicken and losing. He is buckling under expectations, responsibilities, fear. For him it is easier to deny his passion, love for the sport than admit to failure.
Like Sloane Stephens, Kyrgios suffered from mental lapses and questions of committment. The list of players who have questioned their will to play is long: Osaka, Muguruza, Tomic, Fognini, Djokovic… They are all still playing. They found their way. It takes time. For some it takes a little longer. The addition of a sports psychologist would certainly be helpful; it helped Halep, Stephens and Murray.
The negative mist reporters, commentators and writers liberally spray cannot be easy for players to breath through. It is unacceptable to coddle these players as juniors and then crucify them as young adults. Many have experienced this dizzying ride. Can this be the blame for the post title/slam slump? Mmmmmmmmmm. Listening to commentators, is an exercise in patience. The racialized animus is overwhelming. The constant aggrandizing of kyrgios’ opponents is to be expected. As is, the derision of kygrios’ character, match fitness, effort, mental acuity, point construction, hair and flair. His honesty and interests outside of tennis are used against him. They harp on his press conferences, love of basketball and Pokemon. It is only his shot-making ability that sends them into fits of fawning and Monfils comparisons. It is amazing that he has kept his sanity and composure as well as he has.
Tennis has its share of ‘bad boys’, men who ave been unkind, inappropriate, rude, immoral. Long time tennis fans know this to be true of John McEnroe, Pancho Gonzales, Marat Safin, Jimmy Connors, Illie Nastase, even Andre Agassi. These players’ behavior on and off the court was far beyond snarky. They were not gentlemanly. But tennis is not prim and proper, though it holds tight to this long crafted narrative. Federer and Murray curse on court. Djokovic and Nadal’s drama filled tirades at umpires are ridiculous. So why has the sport forsaken the über talented Kyrgios? The forsaken one is no different from the rest of the tour. The bigger question the sport must acknowledge and address is why is Kyrgios’ behavior penalized, indeed criminalized, while others are erased or sanctioned? It would be malpractice if we were not to also consider that Kyrgios to may have forsaken the sport, if only temporarily. Hopefully Kyrgios has steadied himself and is prepared to sink into his greatness!
For more on Nick Kyrgios:
Will Kyrgios’ Sledge Push the Tennis Culture Forward?
5 Reasons Nick Kyrgios Needs a Coach Stat!
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