Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
At Melbourne Park last week Charles Dickens found himself back in vogue as media and fans alike tried to figure out which of the two Nicks would come to the court each time Nick Kyrgios’s name was announced.
An intriguing tale was being played out – hope and despair competing in equal measure, the future appearing bright and bleak in turns, belief fighting for space with incredulity.
Would wisdom prevail, unlikely as it seemed, or would foolishness rule the roost as it had done on numerous past occasions? Which Nick would emerge?
The answers were not long in coming, and they were to surprise many: Nick made it into the fourth round of the Australian Open.
He served at 218 kilometres per hour and the ball came right back to his forehand. He returned it down the line and cantered left to send the cross court return at an impossible angle from his backhand. His opponent just hammered it down the line. Nick lost the point.
The Nick of a year ago would have smashed his racquet in disgust. He would then have picked a fight with the nearest mocking spectator and earned a fine, perhaps a ban. But, to use an oft-abused cliché, this time it’s different.
He shook his head, muttered to himself, gestured animatedly to his box in exasperation and crossed over to the left court for his next serve wordlessly. He lost the hard-fought match to Dimitrov.
Nick didn’t do much wrong. He earned 156 points to Dimitrov’s 157, and yet Dimitrov is in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and Nick is going home. The Nick of old would have ranted about how he hates the sport. But not this Nick.
Instead he said: “There were periods where I stepped on the court last year where I was just doing it for the sake of doing it. I feel a lot better this time around.
“Last year I really didn’t know what I was going to do after the Australian Open. I feel like I have more of a vision and goal for this year. I think I’m in a good head space.”
And then Nick went a step further.
He embraced Dimitrov at the net and said something to him which he talked about later: “I just told him to believe in himself. Sometimes I think he lacks a bit of belief. But I think he’s got the game and he’s proved to everyone that he can win one of these slams.”
This is Nick the elder statesman talking about a player who is four years older, has been around for 10 years on the circuit, is ranked 14 places above him and has failed to go the final mile despite showing immense promise.
The warm applause that accompanied him as he left the court at the end of his loss to Dimitrov could not have contrasted more sharply with the boos that drove him off the same court exactly a year earlier after his second-round loss to Andreas Seppi.
It is undeniable that there is everything to love about his flamboyantly brilliant game bordering often on the ridiculous. In an age when the tennis fraternity is hungry for new heroes that can replace the Roger Federers and Rafael Nadals when they eventually lay down their racquets, Nick’s game is uplifting and exhilarating. The display against Dimitrov has just reinforced this.
But the real question remains: is the applause for the new and improved Nick Kyrgios a reflection of the Australian public’s desperate need to find a tennis hero or is it a real change that has emerged over the past 1 months?
Is this Nick for real – a differently focused performer – or just a temporarily hidden ticking bomb?
In the past Nick has managed to reserve his spectacular worst for the Shanghai Open. Fifteen months ago he effectively threw away a second-round match against unfancied Mischa Zverev 6-3 6-1, making no attempt at any pretence that he wanted to win. Once during the match he floated a ball towards the net and then walked to his chair without waiting for it to be returned. He was fined $50,000 and banned by the ATP for three months.
Exactly 12 months on, back on the same court, Nick left both opponent Steve Johnson and the umpire speechless when he calmly walked across, shook hands with both, and walked off the court, never to return. This time he was fined $21,000.
Three months later is it believable that Nick is a different man as his most ardent fans and the success-starved Aussie public would like to conclude?
He has changed around a few things. He has a new diet, a new gym routine and adequate rehab for his shoulder, hip and knee issues. He did not play basketball to prepare for the 2018 Open as he did a year ago, thankfully stopping that well before the offseason ended.
Nick did not, however, go so far as to appoint a coach – something that every well-wisher has suggested to him – dispensing with the services of Sebastien Grosjean after a brief flirtation with authority last year.
His view on coaches continues to be as irreverent and refreshingly different as you would expect: “It’s tough to know whether they’re just doing it for the sake of getting a bit of cash or rather have best interests at heart.”
If you are a coach, you should probably look elsewhere for your next ward.
Nick has played at Brisbane and at the Australian Open, two whole tournaments in 2018 without going beyond asking the crowd, just once – incredible but true – to perform a physically impossible acrobatic act. He has played brilliant irresistible tennis and shown grace and sporting spirit when he has lost points and a solitary match.
For those of us who have followed Nick’s career it has been four years of always unpredictable and sometimes unacceptable behaviour followed by 23 days of jaw-dropping civility and bonhomie with opponents and fans alike. The tennis through this period, when the man has been in the mood, has been stunning, exhilarating stuff that dreams are made of.
It is tempting to conclude that this is the Nick we shall see from now on, but while we rejoice in the present we would do well to remember that Nick is not a conformist and will never be. That is just not who he is.
He may well conquer his demons one day and win that grand slam just to get the monkey off the back of his well-wishers – though, as he keeps reminding us, he couldn’t care less – but every time you buy a ticket to Rod Laver Arena to see him play you will never know which Nick will come to the party that day.
For the foreseeable future the story of Australian tennis will in all likelihood be a tale of two Nicks.