Top-seeded titleholder Novak Djokovic, five-times champion Roger Federer and world No.2 Rafael Nadal are again the men to beat at the US Open.
Nick Kyrgios formed some bad mental habits over the past two years. After bursting onto the scene in 2014 and 2015, having accolades and endorsement deals thrown at him, perhaps he thought it would be easy.
Perhaps he bought the bulldust from those over enthusiastic, under researched Australian sports ‘pundits’ who said he would win a couple of slams in his early 20s, like Lleyton Hewitt.
Either way, he formed the routine of being a great frontrunner, able to dispatch lesser – or even higher ranked – players from the court in straight sets when he was on, but essentially throwing in the towel often when any type of resistance was given.
This was exaggerated in grand slams last year, where lesser-ranked and paid players come out all guns blazing, hungry for the prize money and ranking points on offer- where Nick didn’t make it past the second round in any slam, succumbing meekly a number of times.
This year so far, though, things have been different. Whispers of a focussed off season and a newfound seriousness were given credence when Nick fought back from a set down on three occasions to win the Brisbane International, defeating world number 3 – and Nick’s next Australian opponent – Grigor Dimitrov in the process.
In the matches in Brisbane where he lost the first set, it seemed Nick was fighting an internal battle as well as the external one. In one corner was his old self, the self that had been formed by 24 months of checking out mentally when the going got tough, of blaming everyone and everything but himself – crowds, weather, linesmen, umpires, and even his own player’s box.
In the first set of each of those three matches, it seemed that his old self would prevail, and he would continue his status as an entertainer but not a serious contender.
In the other corner of Nick’s mind, though, was the newly forming him. The one with the better habits, who took responsibility, who continued to focus even when the going got tough. The one that no doubt Lleyton Hewitt and John McEnroe have helped craft in the Davis and Laver Cup squads.
Over the course of those Brisbane matches, we saw Nick dig himself out of his previous mental habits, and start to fight, start to win ugly- a skill that every successful athlete must have.
Last night, against Tsonga, Nick took “winning ugly” to another level. His forehand was at times meek- he floated countless balls to the middle of the court, sitting up for the more powerful Tsonga to dispatch. His backhand was below par as well.
Nick repeatedly reprimanded himself for missing passing shots that he would have normally made. But, crucially, he hung in there. He stayed there mentally, and was prepared to win ugly.
Tsonga seemed the superior player over the course of the match, and could have easily won the match in four sets himself. But Nick was here to play, geeing himself up regularly, ready to take his opportunities. And take his opportunities he did.
When Jo ran around his forehand and missed, and Nick converted his first match point, all those new- but still forming- habits paid off for him. This was winning ugly at it’s best.