Nick Kyrgios makes fools – and psychiatrists – of us all. He shares with John McEnroe the gift of pushing the right buttons, then leaving the room with questions unanswered, arguments …
Nick Kyrgios makes fools – and psychiatrists – of us all. He shares with John McEnroe the gift of pushing the right buttons, then leaving the room with questions unanswered, arguments raging.
Where they differ crucially and obviously is McEnroe red-lined most of his career, which stretched intermittently from 1978 to 2006, and stilled his demons long enough to win 77 singles and 78 doubles titles, the most combined by any player in the Open era. He was a major champion seven times. Kyrgios has been on the Tour since 2012 and won five titles from 12 finals. He has got to the quarters in two majors, the first when he famously beat Rafael Nadal on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2014.
And, as he said with aching candour after losing the rematch on the same court on Thursday night, “I know what I’m capable of. I’m a great tennis player but I don’t do the other stuff. I’m not the most professional guy. I won’t train day in, day out. I won’t show up every day. So there’s a lot of things I need to improve on to get to that level that Rafa, Novak [Djokovic], Roger [Federer] have been doing for so long. Just depends how bad I want it. But, no, at the moment I don’t think I can contend for a grand slam.”
He is probably right. The odds on Kyrgios winning seven best-of-five matches in the same fortnight dwindle with every tantrum – and it is impossible to know how much it hurts him, because he covers the wounds in Olympic-level smart-arsery. It is the language he knows best, bro. Or dude. It is the angry voice of youth – except Kyrgios is 24 – the age Nadal was when he won seven titles in a year, including the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – and had to quit when injured in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open against Andy Murray.
It is ludicrous to suggest Kyrgios will ever stand alongside Nadal, who has won 18 majors, but one major, surely, ought to be in his orbit. His talent is as outrageous as his behaviour. Some of his shot-making on Thursday night left Nadal clueless, so inventive was it in conception and execution. Yet Kyrgios lost. There would be no re-run of 2014. That was a memory forever buried in the past.
Nevertheless he has something about him. Young fans unconcerned about good manners or tradition love him; most over-40s cannot stand him. For hours after Kyrgios and Nadal had served up four sets of tennis with enough electricity to power a small town on Thursday, the debate swirled around the bars of Wimbledon village – including, no doubt, the Dog & Fox where the Australian had idled away a few hours the night before – about whether or not Nick was the most interesting and mercurial presence to illuminate the sport since, well, McEnroe, or just a prat.
John McEnroe questions a decision.
John McEnroe questions a decision. Photograph: PA
Kyrgios, post-match, scoffed at the suggestion his night-time manoeuvres or his earlier serial taunting of Nadal as a “super salty” sore loser had anything to do with the hard-stare Spanish backlash that bundled him out of the tournament in the second round.
And he professed puzzlement when someone asked if he had apologised to Nadal for belting a ball straight at him in the third set. Nadal double-faulted next point – so Kyrgios got a result.
What was forgotten in the hubbub over the deliberate strike was how Kyrgios had earlier narrowly missed Nadal’s head with another potential teeth-mover from much closer. Nadal stared at him for fully seven seconds. Later he pretended the incident did not bother him. Kyrgios at least finished in front of Nadal for honesty.
Whether or not these macho tactics are legitimate is an old tennis conundrum. Similar happens in doubles regularly because they have so many close-quarter, reflex rallies and the battlefield is more crowded. But there is an unspoken convention in singles – ignored for years by the likes of Ivan Lendl – that it is not the done thing.
Were it to be more routine to “tube” an opponent – as the argot has it – the game would certainly move up a notch as entertainment. But Kyrgios has deeper problems. For all the noise and fuss he makes on court he seems incapable of properly dropping his guard away from the performance.
Perhaps he could learn from Dan Evans, whose renaissance since returning from a ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2017 has been one of the heartwarming stories of the season. He cried with joy – and the crowd – when he beat the 18th seed, Nikoloz Basilashvili, in Thursday. If he beats João Sousa on Saturday, and Nadal beats Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Evans gets a crack at the Spaniard in the fourth round – just like Kyrgios did five years ago.
Someone of authority in the game suggested, mischievously perhaps, that maybe a break from the game would also benefit Kyrgios. It is not such a crazy thought.
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