Tal­ent to Burn

Five short pieces about Nick Kyr­gios

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Richard Cooke

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.

1. 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-net-post shots and spec­u­la­tive drop shots from be­hind the base­line. His frank cross­court 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 half­hearted 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. “I don’t love it.” He said his coach de­served bet­ter, then parted ways with him. For most of his ca­reer, Kyr­gios has had no full-time coach, although some­times he says he needs one. Very oc­ca­sion­ally, pro­fes­sion­als do go coach-less, but this is usu­ally when they are es­tab­lished, or ul­tra suc­cess­ful, or poor. Kyr­gios is none of those things. Paul An­na­cone,

No re­spect, all the en­ti­tle­ment, too much money, glued to their smart­phones. Now mil­len­ni­als were ru­in­ing ten­nis too.

who has coached both Fed­erer and Pete Sam­pras, re­port­edly called Kyr­gios un­coach­able, but that is not true ei­ther. It is just that no one has been able to draw that sword from the stone. The trou­ble with coach­ing Kyr­gios is that it in­volves telling him what to do, an ac­tiv­ity near the top of his list of dis­likes. Si­mon Rea, Sébas­tian Gros­jean and Josh Ea­gle all tried, and Todd Larkham tried twice, but for now Nick Kyr­gios’s coach is Nick Kyr­gios. When he re­ferred to the Aus­tralian player Matt Reid, his dou­bles part­ner, as “my coach” dur­ing his Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional vic­tory speech in Jan­uary, he was jok­ing. Reid hits with him, and forms part of his en­tourage – along with Kyr­gios’s mother and fa­ther, his brother, Chris­tos, and his man­ager, John Mor­ris. They sit in his box, and to­gether they do what they can to cre­ate the spe­cial cir­cum­stances in which their man can play his best ten­nis. They try to work the con­trols of his fo­cus, tele­path­i­cally. “Just try,” his mother Nor­laila will say. He es­chews struc­ture, bore­dom, and the pat­terns and rou­tines that form the men­tal coun­ter­part of mus­cle mem­ory in many ten­nis play­ers. It is dif­fi­cult be­cause it has al­ways been easy for him. “A gift and a curse,” he told the re­porter Matt Dick­in­son in 2016. “Ever since I was young, I was al­ways at the top of my age group. There’s prob­a­bly a lot of peo­ple on tour who have to work a lot harder.” He has an im­pec­ca­ble serve, which he uses to cross-sub­sidise the strange and es­o­teric shots he prefers. (There is a half-baked the­ory that Kyr­gios’s flair came from his child­hood, when he de­vel­oped his ground­strokes and serve so he didn’t have to run.) For a pro­fes­sional sportsper­son, he is sur­pris­ingly un­fit. These at­tributes and pe­cu­liar­i­ties, when com­bined with surety and tal­ent, and off­set with a cou­ple of di­a­mond studs, a rude hair­cut and a coloured com­plex­ion, have been re­ceived as in­so­lence, es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia. If ten­nis has brought out the worst in Kyr­gios, Kyr­gios has brought out the worst in Aus­tralia. His “an­tics” pro­voked a fit of moral­ity that is only now start­ing to sub­side. Full li­cence was granted when Kyr­gios directed a sledge at Stan Wawrinka in 2015. The sledge was about the Swiss player’s girl­friend, and af­ter the match Wawrinka re­port­edly had to be phys­i­cally re­strained from tak­ing to Kyr­gios with his fists. Kyr­gios was given a sus­pended ban and fined, but for his de­trac­tors no pun­ish­ment was enough. Sports jour­nal­ist Re­becca Wil­son sug­gested a boy­cott. “Never be­fore has there been such a per­sonal, low-rent ti­rade launched across the net from an op­po­nent,” she wrote, as though Ilie Năs­tase had never ex­isted. Dawn Fraser said he should go home to “where his par­ents are from” (this meant ei­ther Greece or Malaysia, pos­si­bly both). To the com­ment sec­tions, he be­came a flog (not co­in­ci­den­tally the same piece of in­vec­tive directed at Adam Goodes). Had the sledge come from a crick­eter rather than a ten­nis player, it would have been ex­cused, maybe even cel­e­brated, but on Sky News one sports com­men­ta­tor called Kyr­gios a “piece of shit”. As Kyr­gios be­gan to find the pres­sures of pub­lic life more in­tol­er­a­ble, each new piece of petu­lance was added to his per­ma­nent record. The Bi­ble says only a sin against the Holy Spirit can­not be for­given, but the gospel ac­cord­ing to Mal­colm Knox dis­agreed:

Should he reach his po­ten­tial and be­gin win­ning ma­jor tour­na­ments, will Aus­tralia for­give him (or script for their own ab­so­lu­tion and willed am­ne­sia), and re­write the past as a story of per­fectly un­der­stand­able youth­ful in­dis­cre­tion? Will the Davis Cup – a green-and-gold-wash of rep­u­ta­tion-laun­der­ing – be Kyr­gios’ av­enue to re­demp­tion? Shame on you, Aus­tralia, for even con­tem­plat­ing it.

Wawrinka had for­given Kyr­gios long ago, but for the Aus­tralian press the pearls be­ing clutched were too lus­trous to re­lin­quish. What was the endgame? To hang the re­mains of Kyr­gios’s young ca­reer on a gib­bet, as a warn­ing to oth­ers? But a warn­ing against what? There was a gen­er­a­tional­ist note in all of these pieces, an echo of those com­men­taries on en­ti­tled Gen Ys in the work­place. No re­spect, all the en­ti­tle­ment, too much money, glued to their smart­phones. Now mil­len­ni­als were ru­in­ing ten­nis too. Few re­mained chaste in the orgy of sanc­ti­mony. In the me­dia, only Rus­sell Jack­son, writ­ing for Guardian Aus­tralia, sug­gested that the pres­sure and cyn­i­cism were erod­ing Kry­gios’s sense of self. He was “with­draw­ing him­self fur­ther back into the com­forts of child­hood” in re­sponse: tantrums, movies and Poké­mon GO.

Aus­tralia laments there is no colour in pub­lic life any­more, com­plains that sports­peo­ple show no per­son­al­ity in their in­ter­views, and then pun­ishes them the mo­ment they do.

Ten­nis play­ers, past and present, were some­times more nu­anced as well. Kyr­gios was never in dan­ger of be­com­ing a friend­less odd­ball like Robin Söder­ling or Daniel Koellerer, and while he was ad­mon­ished now and then by fel­low pro­fes­sion­als they seemed oddly pro­tec­tive of him. Rod Laver thought con­demn­ing him was the wrong ap­proach. “The press want to get on him … ask­ing ‘why, why are you do­ing this?’ and you don’t get an an­swer, be­cause maybe he doesn’t know the an­swer.” Any Aus­tralian ten­nis player born af­ter 1980 is a fail­ure by de­fault, be­cause they play in the shadow of a dy­nas­tic pe­riod that will never be re­peated: Aus­tralians won 36 out of the 48 men’s grand slam sin­gles ti­tles con­tested be­tween 1960 and 1971, and 15 Davis Cups be­tween 1950 and 1967. They won with a gen­tle­manly, recre­ational brand of play summed up in the motto “first to the net, first to the bar”. A tra­di­tion, curiously, of not tak­ing it too se­ri­ously. Aus­tralia loves lar­rikins, as long as they are white, and po­lite, and dis­play no flam­boy­ance and voice no con­tro­ver­sial opin­ions. Aus­tralia laments there is no colour in pub­lic life any­more, com­plains that sports­peo­ple show no per­son­al­ity in their in­ter­views, and then pun­ishes them the mo­ment they do. Aus­tralia is will­ing to em­brace Nick Kyr­gios, as long as he be­comes some­one else.

2. Any pro­fes­sional ten­nis player who raises their voice will sooner or later be com­pared to John McEn­roe. For once, that com­par­i­son is per­ti­nent. Kyr­gios and McEn­roe have a lot in com­mon be­yond the clichés. Both out­siders, both pre­fer­ring bas­ket­ball, both in some ways not suited to ten­nis but too good to do any­thing else, both prac­tice averse, both preter­nat­u­rally tal­ented, both noise-pho­bic, both mys­ti­fied and apolo­getic but ul­ti­mately un­re­pen­tant about their own play­ing emo­tions. As a com­men­ta­tor, McEn­roe has ribbed Kyr­gios, and Kyr­gios has re­turned fire. McEn­roe ex­pressed in­ter­est in coach­ing him, and Kyr­gios told him that he was “dream­ing”. But McEn­roe did coach him, briefly, to a match point against Roger Fed­erer at the Rod Laver Cup in 2017, and they were sim­patico. “We just get along pretty well,” Kyr­gios said after­wards. McEn­roe told Kyr­gios to give it his all, and that there was no dis­grace los­ing to a good player, try­ing to help him cal­i­brate his burn­ing will to win so the flames didn’t lick too high. “Mac, this is the way I am,” Kyr­gios re­sponded. “It looks like this at times.” Like McEn­roe, Kyr­gios ap­proaches the court as a con­cept, a pla­tonic ideal of ten­nis where there is no crowd noise, no bad line calls, no slug­gish sur­faces, no stom­ach bugs, no heat. And every time im­per­fect re­al­ity in­trudes, Kyr­gios ex­pe­ri­ences it as a vi­o­la­tion. He be­comes a vex­a­tious lit­i­gant, rail­ing against an un­just sys­tem. The so-called ten­nis au­thor­i­ties are im­posters, char­la­tans there to tor­ment him. Their pres­ence is a mock­ery of the idea of im­par­tial judge­ment. Who are they to judge ten­nis? Can they even play it? One of the sta­ples of his self-talk: “It’s not fair.” But Kyr­gios has never spat at any­one, or hit a cup of wa­ter into the King of Swe­den’s lap. He only stands out be­cause he’s play­ing through a pe­riod of un­usual ten­nis gen­til­ity. Their rages are dif­fer­ent too. McEn­roe’s was a form of games­man­ship, a span­ner in the other player’s mo­men­tum, a break of rhythm and nar­ra­tive. Kyr­gios’s anger is much more self-directed, or directed at his box, as an ex­ten­sion of him­self. Some­times his petu­lance be­comes a form of fuel it­self, like burn­ing the fur­ni­ture when the fire­wood has run out. Crit­ics want Kyr­gios to find more en­ergy from his body, or from rou­tine, but then he wouldn’t be free any­more. “I am al­ways go­ing to play with emo­tion, I have been like that since I was a lit­tle kid,” Kyr­gios said af­ter his first home ti­tle in Bris­bane. Liam Gal­lagher tweeted: “Nick kyr­gios don’t lis­ten to the beige boys do your thang do your thang well done as you were LG x”

Right be­fore he serves, Nick Kyr­gios moves his fin­gers over the butt of his rac­quet in a light flex­ion, the same move­ment a gun­slinger makes be­fore a quick draw. (He even curls his fore­fin­ger as if reach­ing for a trig­ger.) His ser­vice mo­tion, much stud­ied, car­ries en­ergy the way a whip does as it arcs into a crack, and some­times, when he reaches up into the higher ech­e­lons of speed, around 220 kilo­me­tres an hour, the ball makes a light crack­ing sound off the strings. At this ve­loc­ity a “boom­ing serve” is not just a metaphor.

No player taller than six foot four has ever been world No. 1. Nick Kyr­gios is ex­actly six foot four.

In­stead of tele­graph­ing his in­tent, Kyr­gios keeps ex­actly the same pos­ture no mat­ter where he de­liv­ers the ball. His sec­ond serve is even more un­pre­dictable, full of shape and spin, or some­times, if he feels like it, just a flat ace. These serves are enough to take a match away. At the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional, the Aus­tralian Matt Eb­den was driven so far back by Kyr­gios’s bar­rage of baf­fling aces that he wound up re­ceiv­ing deep be­hind the base­line, and then deeper be­hind the white BRIS­BANE logo laid into the court. Eb­den mimed his predica­ment to the crowd by hold­ing his rac­quet in front of his face, like a shield. Kyr­gios’s first-round op­po­nent at this year’s Aus­tralian Open, Rogério Du­tra Silva, ranked ex­actly 100th in the world, was so beaten by the weird, high kick of his sec­ond serve that he had to jump into the air to meet it, and the crowd ac­tu­ally laughed. Com­men­ta­tors al­ways say that Nick Kyr­gios has the sixth best men’s serve recorded since 1991. Said less of­ten: the five play­ers above Kyr­gios on this list – Mi­los Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, Joachim Jo­hans­son, Andy Rod­dick and John Is­ner – have only one grand slam win be­tween them. The prob­lem with these heavy servers is that they are too tall. When they are not serv­ing, they are stoop­ing and run­ning and angling for balls that are too far away from them. No player taller than six foot four has ever been world No. 1. Nick Kyr­gios is ex­actly six foot four, and can per­form all of these ac­tions grace­fully, as well as feats that shorter, more agile play­ers can­not, like a drop shot, from be­hind the base­line, at Wim­ble­don, against Rafael Nadal. Kyr­gios watched the re­play of this shot more than 100 times, and said one of the things he ap­pre­ci­ated about it the most was the luck. In Brazil they talk about the dif­fer­ence be­tween fute­bol arte and fute­bol de re­sul­ta­dos – art foot­ball and re­sults foot­ball. Nick Kyr­gios plays art ten­nis.

3. Nick Kyr­gios’s favourite sport, to play and to watch, is bas­ket­ball. This pref­er­ence feels a bit il­licit, like an open love af­fair. He of­ten looks like a bas­ket­baller, mov­ing on court with the lan­guid shuf­fle of an NBA player ap­proach­ing the free-throw line. Af­ter a big serve or fore­hand, he will find him­self caught out by a quick re­turn, be­cause he has em­pha­sised his fol­low-through to cre­ate an aes­thetic piece of hang time. Af­ter freak­ish shots he is known to raise his arms, as though look­ing for a team­mate’s chest bump. Kyr­gios had the choice to be a bas­ket­ball player, at 14, or rather his par­ents had that choice, and they de­cided that ten­nis was a clearer ca­reer path. He laments not play­ing a team sport, and at those junc­tures where ten­nis be­comes a team sport, like the Davis Cup, no one tries harder (although there was that one tie against Kaza­khstan, dur­ing a dif­fi­cult pe­riod in 2015, when his mind went AWOL, and he still smashes rac­quets). The peo­ple who call him a flog al­ways go on about “rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralia”, but the times Kyr­gios does rep­re­sent Aus­tralia he is ex­em­plary, al­ways en­cour­ag­ing his friends and team­mates. It’s when he is rep­re­sent­ing him­self that there’s trou­ble. He is not alone among ten­nis play­ers in not lov­ing ten­nis. (There is a rea­son An­dre Agassi and St­effi Graf have no court at­tached to their fam­ily home.) This joy­less­ness is not just a fea­ture of the modern game, or the way it is played now. Ten­nis is partly cruel be­cause it is un­usual. You can score more points than your op­po­nent and still lose. It has no fixed du­ra­tion: the long­est men’s sin­gles match on record is more than 20 times the du­ra­tion of the short­est. This per­ver­sion of time ap­plies to the tour too. Most sports are as sea­sonal as crops, but ten­nis has no fal­low pe­riod. At one stage, the men’s ten­nis tour took 13 months – the fi­nals of the year prior were still be­ing played as the new sea­son was be­gin­ning. It is now roughly 11 months long, and while few pro­fes­sional ath­letes of any stripe can hope for a nor­mal life, ten­nis is ab­so­lute in re­mov­ing any sem­blance. For some­one who gets as home­sick as Kyr­gios, it is de­bil­i­tat­ing. Ten­nis is lonely not just on court (a player is not even al­lowed to speak to their own coach) but off it, and it is not just hoop dreams to find the NBA a more at­trac­tive prospect. Think, for a mo­ment, about what hap­pens if a bas­ket­baller is in­jured. He re­tains his salary. His fran­chise pays for his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. He re­mains part of the team, and will of­ten be sur­rounded by en­cour­ag­ing team­mates as he con­va­lesces. When he re­turns, he can an­tic­i­pate re­gain­ing his for­mer po­si­tion in short or­der. No one thinks the Aus­tralian Matthew Dellave­dova is in the top 20 bas­ket­ball play­ers in the world, yet he has an NBA cham­pi­onship ring, won along­side LeBron James, and earns $9.6 mil­lion a year.

Any man who plays ten­nis pro­fes­sion­ally and is ranked lower than 160th makes a loss. (This can cre­ate crush­ing un­cer­tainty in the very-good-but-not-great: the Aus­tralian Sam Groth, for ex­am­ple, put his ca­reer on hia­tus some years ago, and be­came a fire­man, be­fore re­turn­ing to the tour.) If a ten­nis player is in­jured, he earns noth­ing. His re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is self-funded. He drops off the tour, and when he re­turns to it his rank­ing may have dropped so far he’s in­el­i­gi­ble to play in those tour­na­ments where he can earn his liv­ing. He must win his for­mer rank­ing back. It is pos­si­ble, in a few months, to go from play­ing in front of 14,000 pay­ing cus­tomers at a grand slam tour­na­ment to play­ing in front of a hand­ful of fam­ily mem­bers and the odd cu­ri­ous on­looker at a far-flung ATP Chal­lenger event (say, in As­tana, Kaza­khstan). The for­tunes of Nick Kyr­gios are some­times tied to those of Bernard Tomic, an­other Euro­pean-Aus­tralian “bad boy” not en­am­oured of ten­nis. But the 25-year-old Tomic has im­mo­lated his bridges, and seems plagued by even deeper ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions. His po­si­tion has de­graded so thor­oughly, his diplo­matic re­la­tions with the ten­nis ad­min­is­tra­tors are so shot, that nei­ther rank­ing nor wild card could gain him en­try into the 2018 Aus­tralian Open. In­stead he had to qual­ify. He played Ital­ian hope­ful Lorenzo Sonego on an out­side court, where play oc­ca­sion­ally had to be stopped so a train could rumble past. The small crowd (ad­mis­sion: free) was sup­port­ive, but sensed the di­min­ish­ment, and in a match played in the kind of heat that cre­ates de­spon­dency, Tomic wilted, his tal­ent in tat­ters. Like Kyr­gios, he had once been ranked 17th in the world.

4. At the 2018 Aus­tralian Open, Nick Kyr­gios was telling some­one in the crowd to shut up, tersely, but with no par­tic­u­lar mal­ice, and as he did the ten­sion in­side Mel­bourne Park’s Hisense Arena height­ened for a mo­ment, ex­pec­tant. Per­haps this shout­ing would not end. Of all his pe­cu­liar­i­ties, maybe the most dis­tinc­tive is Kyr­gios’s aver­sion to noise. This is a li­a­bil­ity for some­one whose of­fice is a fully peo­pled sta­dium. A pro­fes­sional ten­nis match can be rau­cous, but it is never just rau­cous. Its sound lev­els range from noth­ing to a roar that en­velops the game, and there are con­stant stac­cato patches of in­ter­fer­ence. As a player serves, a sta­dium may be the qui­etest col­lec­tion of 14,000 peo­ple you can have. It is not a si­lence, though, but a hush, the sound of la­tent sound un­der re­straint, and as the point de­vel­ops, the rhythm of the ball and the strings and the sighs of the play­ers will be joined by the crowd. Through­out it all, though, the sound is still in­ter­mit­tent enough that you can hear a lone id­iot shout “That’s out!” – say, when a ball hits the line.

In the mur­mur be­tween points, there is enough au­ral space that ten­nis play­ers can have con­ver­sa­tions if they want to, with them­selves, or their op­po­nent, with um­pires, or even in­di­vid­ual fans. At the 2016 Shang­hai Masters a fan called out, “Re­spect the game!” Kyr­gios replied, “You wanna come here and play? Sit down and shut up and watch!” At the Open, his brother Chris­tos wore a T-shirt at one match that said “QUIET PLEASE”, and it was hard to tell if it was a joke about the crowd or about Nick. Kyr­gios’s pro­cliv­ity is well known enough that it is al­most en­dear­ing now, and a bit hammy, like a mae­stro say­ing, “How do you ex­pect me to work un­der these con­di­tions?!” When a cou­ple chat­ted qui­etly dur­ing a point, some­one leaned in and said, “Nick will yell at you if you keep that up.”

The Aus­tralian Open it­self de­scribes Hisense Arena as “more rau­cous [than the other are­nas], it’s more lubri­cated, it’s more pri­mal, and it’s ex­actly the kind of cir­cus that Kyr­gios thrives in”. This was sup­posed to ex­plain why Kyr­gios had asked to play at Hisense, the peo­ple’s arena with a younger, more mul­ti­cul­tural crowd and a cheaper ticket price, but the cir­cus part was wrong. Nick Kyr­gios doesn’t like cir­cuses, and has been known to spend 45 min­utes ex­plain­ing this to an um­pire if, say, some­one in the crowd starts play­ing mu­sic. His first-round match went smoothly: most peo­ple re­sponded to his re­quest to shut up, and there was only one Hisense clown in the cir­cus, who called out dur­ing the ball toss. Kyr­gios dealt with him by po­litely telling him to the shut the fuck up. The sec­ond-round match, at Hisense, against the Ser­bian jour­ney­man Vik­tor Troicki pre­sented a dif­fer­ent kind of test, and a water­shed in Kyr­gios’s psy­cho­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. It was highly un­usual, and could have been cus­tom made to vi­o­late his del­i­cate sense of fair­ness. The prob­lems started with a noise: some­thing went wrong with the PA. At first the um­pire spoke through a hail of static, then said things that sounded like “mrph bmmtn”, then shouted his in­struc­tions to the play­ers. When Kyr­gios pointed out that the crowd was laugh­ing every time the um­pire used the mi­cro­phone, the of­fi­cial fi­nally de­cided to re­main silent. (Not co­in­ci­den­tally, Kyr­gios played some of his best ten­nis of the tour­na­ment dur­ing this spell of ret­i­cent of­fi­cial­dom.) A spec­ta­tor, later re­vealed to be a vi­ral video maker en­act­ing a prank called “SEX NOISE AT THE AUS­TRALIAN OPEN TEN­NIS!!!”, filmed him­self scream­ing “Oh­hhh yeahhh!” into his phone un­til se­cu­rity ar­rived. Kyr­gios looked on curiously. “Bro,” he called out, sound­ing con­cerned. It didn’t sound like a prank, more like some­one in the crowd hav­ing a med­i­cal event, and it wasn’t un­til af­ter the game that the enigma was ex­plained to Kyr­gios. “Good on him,” he re­sponded. “Lit­tle claim to fame. Let him have it.” It cre­ated an un­set­tled en­ergy, though, and then mid­way through the sec­ond set a red he­li­copter came over

“An Aus­tralian – I mean an Aus­tralian-Aus­tralian player, some­one like Lley­ton He­witt or Pat Cash, would never do that. There are kids watch­ing. They were re­spect­ful. They had hu­mil­ity.”

the open Hisense roof and in­stead of fly­ing away just hov­ered there, its thrum­ming ro­tors res­onat­ing around the stands. It was hard to tell what the pilot was do­ing, and the un­ease wasn’t only be­cause it was in­ter­rupt­ing the match. Kyr­gios looked up at the chop­per with a tired ex­pres­sion that seemed to say, “Typ­i­cal.” (John McEn­roe had once screamed “Shut up!” at a jet plane.) “What is hap­pen­ing?” Kyr­gios asked the um­pire, and be­gan one of his di­a­logues, and the um­pire picked up a phone to call … who? Air traf­fic con­trol? Kyr­gios, who had started look­ing at the he­li­copter like he wanted to knock it out of the sky with a lob, set­tled for some head­shak­ing, and the he­li­copter moved on. It flew off af­ter the phone call, but it was hard to see how these could be re­lated. The crowd was en­joy­ing the cir­cus at­mos­phere. Troicki caught a Kyr­gios ball with his frame, and it looped up and struck the um­pire in the side of the head. Not his night, the of­fi­cial said later. Troicki’s shoelaces broke, and he jerry-rigged a re­pair. A trio of ag­i­tated seagulls ar­rived, and made a squawk­ing trib­ute to the he­li­copter, and the crowd laughed, be­cause by then it re­ally did feel as though they were spe­cial en­voys sent to an­noy Nick Kyr­gios. Nick Kyr­gios who hates noise. “I think last year, the year be­fore, I prob­a­bly would have been still out on the court right now,” Kyr­gios said after­wards. He had stayed in con­trol, hold­ing for a three­set win. “I could be los­ing that match.” He meant los­ing it right now, in­stead of sit­ting in the press con­fer­ence. “It’s pretty easy to think, why me?” he said, with the traces of a rue­ful smile. “The guy in the crowd was crazy. I didn’t re­ally know what was go­ing on … the he­li­copter, that’s when I was think­ing, like, Of course it’s at my match. It’s just hov­er­ing there. Of course it is.” “Kyr­gios and si­lence,” the Her­ald Sun’s Leo Schlink wrote later, “are sel­dom found on the same court.”

On pa­per, the 2018 Aus­tralian Open was a par re­sult for Kyr­gios – ranked No. 17 in the world, he was knocked out in the round of 16. But those watch­ing his tra­jec­tory more closely felt it was a breakout tour­na­ment of sorts. He had two land­mark en­coun­ters – a sport­ing van­quish­ment of his child­hood hero, Jo-Wil­fried Tsonga, and a tense, valiant de­feat by Grigor Dim­itrov – at Rod Laver Arena. He howled and yelled and swore and smashed a cou­ple of rac­quets. Some­times he asked the im­pos­si­ble of his box – “talk­ing with friends”, he called it later – at one point ex­co­ri­at­ing them for not stand­ing up enough, so they started stand­ing up and ap­plaud­ing at ran­dom times, like when he net­ted at 0–15. It was an open tour­na­ment, and the match with Dim­itrov was close, so it was easy to fan­tasy foot­ball an­other ver­sion of Kyr­gios to the fi­nal. He re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion, and said he felt like he de­served it. He was ma­tur­ing, partly re­deemed, but the cooler an­a­lysts knew the dif­fer­ence in dis­ci­pline that marks out the higher rank­ings, the fi­nal­ists and the fi­nal win­ners in grand slams. It might be ra­tio­nal to see the dif­fer­ence in ef­fort and en­joy­ment and fam­ily and pri­vate life be­tween No. 20 and No. 2 in the world, and elect for the for­mer. But if that is the choice for Kyr­gios, it seems to eat him. He can­not stand to not play the ten­nis he knows he can play, but he also plays in a way that guar­an­tees in­con­sis­tency. I wanted to know what this felt like, to be ex­cep­tional but not dom­i­nant, and asked James Blake, the Amer­i­can for­mer world No. 4. What did he think about Kyr­gios? “Of course there is some sort of racial el­e­ment when crit­ics feel that a young man of colour is speak­ing up, and they al­ways are por­trayed as un­grate­ful,” he told me. “But he isn’t that dif­fer­ent from a lot of young play­ers that are forced to grow up on tour. He has ex­cep­tional tal­ent, and that sets him apart as well. Most of the things he has done would be con­sid­ered grow­ing pains for play­ers on tour. “Some peo­ple don’t re­alise that when you are in it it’s ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble to please the crit­ics. They will al­ways ex­pect more. You can’t win every sin­gle match, so you have to find a way to be okay with that.”

5. The guy must have been push­ing 50, but he was wear­ing shorts, and a lan­yard, and the dis­tinc­tive per­masquint that comes with watch­ing a life­time of ten­nis. The Aus­tralian Open hadn’t re­ally started in earnest yet, so I guessed he was here for work. “Did you used to be a ten­nis player, by any chance?” “If I had a dol­lar for every time I was asked that,” he said, with­out telling me how many dol­lars he would

have had. He had played, once upon a time, but now coached, and was here for a coach­ing con­fer­ence. Could I pick his brain about Nick Kyr­gios’s game? It was so un­usual, af­ter all. What did he see, that a civil­ian watch­ing might not see? “Kyr­gios’s prob­lem,” said the coach, “is that the brain isn’t there. It’s a fea­ture of those Euro­pean-Aus­tralian play­ers. You see that same prob­lem of in­tel­li­gence and ap­pli­ca­tion with Bernard Tomic. I mean – did you see the press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day?” Tomic had been bad­gered by re­porters un­til he snapped back: “All I do is count my mil­lions – you try do­ing what I do!” “What did you think of that?” the coach asked. “Well, he was un­der a lot of pres­sure,” I said. “And his dad …” “An Aus­tralian – I mean an Aus­tralian-Aus­tralian player, some­one like Lley­ton He­witt or Pat Cash, would never do that. There are kids watch­ing. They were re­spect­ful. They had hu­mil­ity.” Wait … what? Lley­ton He­witt had hu­mil­ity and was never dis­re­spect­ful? True, he had even­tu­ally won Aus­tralia’s re­spect – the same way he had won ev­ery­thing else, by grind­ing away – but to pre­tend he had al­ways been a gen­tle­man was re­vi­sion­ism. I had just revisited some of He­witt’s early-ca­reer be­hav­iour, and the hos­til­ity it reaped, and the re­ac­tion was so ex­treme I won­dered if Kyr­gios’s re­cep­tion was re­ally so bad. In the early 2000s, be­fore he won Wim­ble­don, the read­ers of In­side Sport voted He­witt the least ad­mired sportsper­son in the world. I men­tioned the time He­witt had gone on a riff about the “stu­pid­ity of the Aus­tralian pub­lic”, and the time he had called an of­fi­cial at the French Open a “spas­tic”, and how he used to howl “Fix the courts!” at the Aus­tralian Open. Re­spect­ful? “Oh yes, he was very re­spect­ful,” said the coach. “If he lost, he cred­ited his op­po­nent. These Euro­pean Aus­tralians are too ar­ro­gant for that! You’ll no­tice they won’t credit their op­po­nents in the press con­fer­ence – it was all them hav­ing a bad day.” I hadn’t no­ticed that at all. Nick Kyr­gios’s pre- and post-match press state­ments, win or lose, fol­low an al­most pro-forma “credit the op­po­nent” line. Kyr­gios talks fast, so it some­times comes out like “yeah he’ s a tough op­po­nent never gives a point away you feel like you have to earn it ”, but if any­thing he tends to give his op­po­nents too much credit. Even dur­ing matches, he will some­times ap­plaud or say “Yeah, good shot” or “Great serve, champ”. “I hadn’t no­ticed that, about the press con­fer­ences,” I said. “Mark Philip­pous­sis was the same,” said the coach. “Ser­ena Wil­liams was the same.” Ser­ena …? I was be­gin­ning to no­tice some­thing else. “There’s a thinly veiled link be­tween them and Kyr­gios … Je­lena Do­kic was al­most as bad,” he said. What about John McEn­roe, wasn’t he “linked” to them too?

“Oh no, he was very in­tel­li­gent,” said the coach. He liked John McEn­roe. “And the Swedes, they would never talk back like that. Un­think­able! You get these pock­ets. It’s the up­bring­ing. I don’t want to be con­de­scend­ing or racist or any­thing like that.” “Of course not,” I said. Re­mark­ably, his anal­y­sis brooked no ex­cep­tions at all. Asian play­ers were re­spect­ful. Spa­niards and Ital­ians were ar­ro­gant, but Spa­niards gave it their all. Rus­sians were stoic and never showed emo­tion, be­cause that’s how they were brought up. “Are you telling me Marat Safin, who broke 700 rac­quets, never showed emo­tion?” I asked. “That’s right. No emo­tion.” What about Daniil Medvedev, who threw coins at a Wim­ble­don um­pire? What about Mikhail Youzhny, who once pounded his fore­head with his rac­quet un­til it bled? It was no use. “Kyr­gios does seem to be ma­tur­ing, though,” said the coach. He had played well to win the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional, we agreed, hold­ing on in mo­ments where once he might have teetered, psy­cho­log­i­cally. “These top guys are think­ing three or four points in ad­vance, or even three or four games in ad­vance,” said the coach, “and if Nick could just get his head around the game …” “Yes,” I said. “But he plays with no in­tel­li­gence.” I had to be go­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.