Edmund struggles after losing touch with his inner tiger
Niggling injury, loss of confidence and quirky rankings system cost British No1 his position
Will Kyle Edmund be returning to Antwerp next week? The answer remains unclear, but he could certainly do with a pickme-up after a season that has turned more sour than a wormeaten apple. So Antwerp – the city where Edmund claimed his maiden ATP title last year – would be a sensible place to start.
Yesterday in Shanghai, Edmund lost in straight sets to Jeremy Chardy. He did not play terrible tennis, exactly. But neither did he ever switch on the afterburners that had carried him to within striking distance of the world’s top 10 last year. And the worst thing? Nobody was surprised, for it has been the same story for most of 2019. When the new rankings are published on Monday, his 19-month possession of the British No1 spot will end.
So, what has happened to the young outsider who reached the Australian Open semi-finals last season? The giant-killer who overpowered Novak Djokovic in Madrid three months later? The rising star who then rampaged through the Asian swing, scoring six wins in a fortnight before returning to Europe and outlasting Gael Monfils in the Antwerp final?
In the view of Barry Cowan, the TV analyst and former British No3: “Kyle has lost his identity. He is at his best when he swings from the hip and uses his forehand. But it’s also true that he finished last year with an inflated ranking and was always going to struggle to defend his points. Next year will be easier.”
Here is one of tennis’s awkward paradoxes. A career breakthrough brings pressure in any sport but particularly so in tennis, because of the rolling 12-month rankings system. Fail to match last year’s results and your career goes backwards. We saw Johanna Konta struggle with similar expectations last year, in the wake of an excellent 2017.
The good news is that Konta went on to sign an insightful new coach and has since delivered the best results of her career. Can Edmund, who is also managed by Starwing Sports, do the same?
“The next coaching appointment is huge,” Cowan says, for you can match Edmund’s dwindling confidence to the moment when Fidde Rosengren announced his retirement in February.
The energetic Swede had encouraged Edmund to abandon his wallflower tendencies and impersonate a fist-pumping warrior. “Fake it ’til you make it,” they say, and Edmund’s bloodcurdling forehand meant that he could back up his new swagger with real firepower.
But Rosengren’s departure meant that the more understated Briton, Mark Hilton – who had shared the coaching role last year – was left to fly solo. Coincidentally or not, Edmund has lost touch with his inner tiger.
Physically, a troublesome left knee dogged Edmund for much of the season. When he quit on his chair against Pablo Cuevas at the French Open, it felt as if his whole glum 2019 had been distilled into one image. Even by the US Open, when he seemed to have finally overcome that niggling pain, his lack of training in the build-up meant that he was outlasted by 33-year-old Pablo Andujar.
Then there is Edmund’s decision to live in the Bahamas. Claiming non-domiciled status saves on tax but there is a downside: being unable to spend more than 90 days in the UK is an uncomfortable position when your friends and family are based there. In August, Edmund admitted that “there’s not a lot of players around” to hit with. Before the US Open, he invited British No16 Paul Jubb out to be a practice partner.
If Edmund wanted to be a tax exile, it would make more sense to buy a flat in Monte Carlo, the world’s unofficial tennis capital. Perhaps he might have done, had Hurricane Dorian razed his house last month as it did so many others. Providentially or not, however, the island of Nassau was relatively unaffected.
Having started the year at No14, Edmund now stands on course to finish somewhere near No70. As Cowan points out, the first figure probably overstated his quality, for he is still adding touches – net skills, for instance – to that forehand-dominated game. But the second is clearly an underestimate. With the right coach, he can surely push back towards the top 30 and better.
This year has not been a happy experience, and Edmund complained in a June interview that “as you become British No1, it’s weird to have people looking for you to fail”. But things should look up. The same rankings system that hurt him this season will benefit him next, for almost every win will be a gain on the points table. Perhaps the loss of that No1 spot will mark the turn of the tide.
Another early exit: Kyle Edmund was beaten in the first round of the Shanghai Masters yesterday