March 12, 2018


Nick Kyrgios: talent to burn (Richard Cooke, March 2018, The Monthly)

Most professional athletes are obsessed with winning, or at least with not losing. This fixation almost always predates them becoming a professional, and sometimes even comes before playing serious sport. It is pronounced in tennis players, and especially pronounced in Nick Kyrgios. He approaches everything from the men's tour to the video game Call of Duty with the same obsessional thirst for competition, and has done ever since he was an overweight, asthmatic kid playing juniors in Canberra.

This trait is unexceptional for a tennis player, possibly even a requirement, but in Kyrgios it is extreme, and sits uncomfortably with the rest of his personality, which is surprisingly collegiate, fair, funny and empathetic. (You might miss these features on a tennis court.) He has been open about this contradiction, and unusually good at describing it. "There is a constant tug-of-war between the competitor within me wanting to win, win, win," he wrote for PlayersVoice in 2017, "and the human in me wanting to live a normal life with my family away from the public glare."

This drive helped him become the youngest player to hold a position in the men's top hundred ATP rankings. On his first encounters with Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, he beat them all. He will be 23 in April, but sometimes talks as though he is a veteran and a little envious of younger players for their freedom and untested confidence. He retains his own freedom by playing tennis with a degree of flair, spontaneity and expressiveness that often borders on the unwise: "tweeners" - shots hit between the legs - are a signature, and representative of a repertoire that extends to round-the-netpost shots and speculative drop shots from behind the baseline. His frank cross-court forehand slap works around 2 per cent of the time, but is one of the most spectacular shots in tennis when it does.

He is the best Australian player in a generation, and somehow this is considered an underachievement. His former coach Josh Eagle revealed Kyrgios could maintain a position just outside the top 20 while doing less than 15 minutes' practice a day. Instead he played basketball and video games, and let his quick hands and reflexes pick up the slack.

He injured his hip, shoulder, knee, ankle, back and elbow, sometimes while playing basketball. He earned almost $6 million in prize money, and paid almost $100,000 in fines. Forbes magazine rated him the most fun tennis player in the world to watch, but not the easiest to watch. Many of those fines accrued in strings of code violations, and some were for moments his half-hearted effort dropped to a no-hearted effort. He admitted to deliberately "tanking" in perhaps eight professional tournaments.

He became famous for meltdowns. When the pressure of talent and competition and winning became too acute, he forfeited or gave up. In his second-round match at the Australian Open in 2017, where he led Andreas Seppi two sets to love, he announced "I didn't sign up for this bullshit" during the third set, received a code violation, and left the court two and a half sets later to the sound of home-crowd booing. He also beat opponents without pleasure, and shook his head after hitting winners.

He was called a brat, a sulking brat, a peanut, a disgrace, a shame, a galoot, and the most talented tennis player of the past decade. (John McEnroe made both the "sulking brat" and the "most talented" comments.) Chinese commentators used a phrase that means "to sink into oblivion".

There was a time when a Nick Kyrgios press conference could feel like an intervention, or a parole board hearing. Press conferences are on his long list of dislikes, which includes noise, late line calls, umpires, late challenges, fans arriving late, phone calls, birds, ball boys not handing him a towel quickly enough, and, periodically, tennis. He mixes disdain for media calls with a painful degree of disclosure. There were times he didn't so much wear his heart on his sleeve as display it clinically, as though on an autopsy table. He questioned his commitment. "I don't really like the sport of tennis that much," he told the UK's Independent newspaper.

No one does.

Posted by at March 12, 2018 5:31 AM