Fans have been incredibly privileged to witness the era of the Big Three of men’s tennis, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer each winning 20 slams.
Nick Kyrgios has always intrigued me as a tennis player, mostly because he basically admits that he doesn’t want to be a tennis player.
He, possibly unlike many other exceptionally talented athletes, does not seem to thrive on individual attention – despite first appearances. He doesn’t appear to want to play for himself.
This is why it was exceptionally revealing to watch him in the recent Laver Cup, and in the Davis Cup before that. Put Kyrgios in a team and suddenly he plays to his potential – it means something to him. But tennis remains predominantly an individual sport, so how can his network get Kyrgios to perform to the levels that would make him an elite of the sport?
It’s slightly strange to say that a sportsman is not selfish enough, especially when it is someone like Kyrgios, who does come across on first appearances as arrogant and self-centred. But in an article he wrote for Players Voice he addressed some of these issues.
The piece in question, headed ‘The battle raging inside me‘, he seemed to be aware of his failings, which isn’t actually anything new. The more interesting thing was that he seemed determined not to lumped “in the same category as Bernard Tomic”.
This seems fair. Where Tomic wants to simply tour the world and collect cheques for any performance, Kyrgios genuinely seems to be stuck in a bind, writing, “There is a constant tug-of-war between the competitor within me wanting to win, win, win and the human in me wanting to live a normal life with my family away from the public glare”.
The motivation to be the best he can be needs to come from both himself and the people around him, something that is much easier in the team events he has been part of lately.
In the Davis Cup Kyrgios may not have set the world on fire – winning in five sets against the world number 77 before losing to David Goffin, the world number 12 in four sets – but unlike some of his other defeats (and even victories) the loss was not a result of his poor play or his temperament.
It’s a difficult thing to measure or even show, but the loss was one of his most professional. There were no questions over his commitment or performance. He could not have done any better on the day. He claimed that it was his top priority “to be healthy, to fight and get some really good results in Davis Cup”.
This commitment to team over self is commendable and has been reinforced with his performances in the Laver Cup, a tournament of absolutely no consequence. His victory over Tomas Berdych and very close defeat to Roger Federer both showed Kyrgios at his best, and in particular his very emotional reaction to the loss showed that while he might not love tennis, he does love winning as part of a team.
His thoughts afterwards were illuminating.
“When I’m playing for myself, sometimes I don’t put the greatest effort in,” he said. “When I play with these guys I’m playing for something as a team. I’m playing for the whole team.
“It’s the same in Davis Cup. I’m playing for the country, playing for the guys on the bench.”
His enjoyment at being part of a team was evident throughout the tournament, celebrating and encouraging his teammates from the bench. If Kyrgios wants to become one of the best players in the world, he must somehow transfer this attitude to his normal tournament matches.
The leadership and guidance of team captains Lleyton Hewitt and John Mcenroe can’t be understated. Both players were under much the same media scrutiny as Kyrgios is now, and both emerged from it as respected players. Mcenroe did offer to coach Kyrgios, an offer that was quickly rebuffed, but now that he has spent time listening to what Mcenroe has to say, Kyrgios really should rethink the offer. Mcenroe could teach Kyrgios how to be a professional, how to be the best in the world and how to cope with the media spotlight.
Nick Kyrgios has the ability to be world number one. He is at a crossroads. If he wishes to be the best in the world, he can be, but he cannot have a normal life. Luckily for him, though, tennis is still a game for individuals, so the decision is entirely up to him.