Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
About a month ago at Wimbledon – the minute he started going downhill in his fourth-round match against Andy Murray – Nick Kyrgios changed irreversibly.
While he’d previously uttered things like “I don’t want to be here” and “I don’t love tennis”, he never bashed himself for his lack of desire to win. He never questioned his own competitive spirit.
What we saw in the press conference after the Murray match was, believe it or not, a maturing Kyrgios. A Kyrgios now realising he could no longer play tennis on the terms of others; neither his family, who have no doubt put blinkers on him his whole life and pushed him to excel at tennis, or the tennis public, who have taken him on an emotional roller coaster, one day celebrating him as the next great of the game, before condemning him as the worst thing to happen to it.
By his recent conduct, it seems Kyrgios, deep down, came to a realisation during and after that Murray match: his talent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
That’s not to say his talent is any less than many a top-ten player, rather that Kyrgios realised if he wanted to be the player that seemingly everyone in the tennis world promised him he would be, his talent alone is never going to get him there.
Perhaps he now feels betrayed by those close to him, who pushed him so hard, and the swooning of the tennis world. All the overreactions – either unnecessarily complimentary or unfairly maligning – have suddenly melted into oblivion in the last month. He’s the only one who has to step onto court with the giants, and his raw talent or fury at those around him (players’ box, media, umpires, doubters) alone won’t allow him to slay them.
While shallow observers may say Kyrgios hasn’t matured at all, he’s actually in the middle of a significant phase of maturity. He has outgrown the old motivations to play, but he’s not yet matured to the point where he knows exactly what he wants, and takes complete responsibility for achieving it.
This is a point Roger Federer reached at 21, Novak Djokovic in his early 20s, Stan Warwrinka in his late 20s, and Rafael Nadal perhaps before he grew facial hair.
Kyrgios now stands at a fork in the road. Going down the first route would see him admit he not only doesn’t care for tennis, but that he also doesn’t have the competitive hunger that players like Andre Agassi found to excel and succeed (despite their ‘hatred’ of the game).
Nick may well give up the sport. The NBA may be a stretch for him, but the NBL would see him as a great addition, if he were good enough. He’d make an honest living, would play the team sport that he so longs for, and would feel less scrutinised.
It’s not too late – five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman barely picked up a basketball until 22, and many ballers play well into their late-30s. Nick could still have a 15-year career in the sport where he feels most at home.
On the other hand, he could realise that he wants to be at the very top of tennis. He could get tired of the barbs, the taunts, the jabs from the media, and of less talented people talking down to him. He could realise his rightful place is as one of the better athletes in the world.
Even if he ‘only’ wins two grand slams in his career, he will be immortalised as someone who made it to the very top of a global sport, putting him at the level of peer with the basketball players he sees as heroes.
It may be a lonelier and more frustrating road – one on which he is constantly taking steps to re-energise his desire to play, and reconnect to his motivations – but even his beloved basketball idols have parts of their job they don’t always love.
It is unknown which road he will take, but one thing is for sure: Kyrgios can’t stay in this no man’s land forever.
Given he’s 21, I wouldn’t quite invoke the harsh phrase tattooed onto his arm, “time is running out”, but Kyrgios has to eventually bite the bullet and decide on a path.