No character occupies the Australian sporting consciousness like Nick Kyrgios.
You might be wondering if my definition of a character is just someone the public loathes, but there’s more to Kyrgios than that.
What is it that we ultimately want from our sports stars? And do we want the same from each of them? Are we in a position to demand anything of them at all?
We hold sports stars to a higher – potentially unfair – standard. We don’t condemn the tradie driving under suspension, or the single mother who forgets to collect the kids, because we understand that people make mistakes.
But athletes have a great responsibility. Their exalted position in society may or may not be earned but, while there, we ask more of them as our heroes.
And this is where the enigma that is Kyrgios fully emerges.
It doesn’t seem clear what we want from him because we’ve never seen an athlete like him.
Kyrgios is a tortured genius – which is a tortured cliché but true nevertheless – who appears to confound the public and himself in equal measure.
Since Kyrgios burst onto the scene at Wimbledon in 2014 against Rafael Nadal, it’s been clear he is a high-level competitor with a thirst for the spotlight.
In the interim, Kyrgios’ career has progressed in fits and starts, flourishing and floundering in turn with little explanation.
He almost seems to carry a sense of shame with him, a reticence to fully express his talent, as if it’s not fair to take advantage of such extraordinary gifts – the crunching forehands, the finesse drop shots, the touch at the net, the preternatural trick shots and the metronomic precision of his rocket serve, all examples of Kyrgios making the game look easier than all but a few players in history.
He will match – and even conquer – Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, but then succumb meekly to a no-name journeyman at an ATP 250 in Doha with a series of serves not returned and efforts not given.
(Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
How can this be so?
It goes beyond the run-of-the-mill inconsistency faced by certain players.
Marat Safin was inconsistent, but he always gave a crap. Kyrgios is so frustrating precisely because he is so baffling. We never know what we are going to get from him.
The unknown is ordinarily a good thing in sport, but in this instance, the sense is of a sporting injustice – that Kyrgios is failing to do justice to his absurd talent through lack of effort.
Is this just a case of Australian sports fans feeling entitled to watch winners?
To an extent, sure, but Kyrgios is booed in arenas around the world.
The average fan interprets Kyrgios’ behaviour as an affront to a basic principle: that the man in the arena, to borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, leaves everything they have out there, no matter the result.
Every now and then in sport, an individual comes along whose talent is nigh inexplicable. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
This effect is compounded in Kyrgios because he doesn’t care to use it at times. But Kyrgios is still a young man, maybe a naïve one. He is a virtuoso crying out for a muse, or at least a player crying out for a coach. Bear in mind, Federer only started to fly solo once he had established his reign atop men’s tennis.
It seems unlikely Kyrgios will change the trajectory of his career if he refuses to allow anyone to guide him in a different direction.
But maybe all this theorising about Kyrgios’ failings is missing the point.
If Kyrgios is truly as disinterested as he often appears, if he doesn’t care for coaching, if he would rather play basketball than practice the day before a grand slam match, then what is the point in trying to change him?
He has even said of tennis players that “we’re just entertainers, trying to put on a good show”. His recent comments on the No Challenges Remaining podcast absolutely hosing Nadal and Novak Djokovic are nothing if not entertaining.
Should we instead be celebrating his refusal to change his personality to fulfil our desire to see a new Australian champion? I’m not sure, but unique character and having a proper crack aren’t mutually exclusive.
(Curtis Compton/Atlanta-Journal Constitution via AP)
Kyrgios is most often compared to retired American firebrand John McEnroe, a player of similarly exquisite talent, who certainly had a crack.
However, the comparison isn’t apt. McEnroe burst on the scene and had won the last of his seven majors by 25, barely a year older than Kyrgios is now and without a major to show for it.
Further, McEnroe was all clenched fists and bravado, all the time, whereas Kyrgios is only combative and fiery when he can be bothered and the game is on his racquet.
It’s understandable that tennis scribes have looked to history to try and understand him because he has given precious few clues as to what drives him and has an at-times frosty relationship with the media.
But the search for a cipher in McEnroe or anyone else to understand Kyrgios is misguided because we haven’t had an athlete who appears to care so little about his performance.
More accurately, we haven’t had an athlete who is so determined to have us believe he doesn’t care. And this gets back to Kyrgios’ tendency to perform when he feels like it: if you don’t care and don’t try you absolve yourself of criticism for failure.
Kyrgios, far from not caring, is terrified of failure and avoids it by beating himself before his opponent can.
I look to Kyrgios with a profound sadness, because what is the point of playing sport at that level if you won’t take the emotional risk to be great?
To be that man in the arena “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”, according to Teddy Roosevelt (clearly a favourite of mine).
And more than any suggestion that Kyrgios is cheating us of entertainment, he is cheating himself of experiencing that honest success and failure.
Ironically, in trying to avoid failure, Kyrgios is suffering a far worse form of failure, for failing to try is pitiable, while failing earnestly is merely human.
I can’t yet decide whether Kyrgios’ career to date is in the category of farce or tragedy. Tragic because he may never test the limits of his ability, and farcical because he has tricked himself into treating his career as a joke.
Hopefully that decision is taken out of my hands by Kyrgios, who is still capable of accomplishing the classic hero’s redemption arc, conquering his failings by daring to fail.
If he can achieve that, he will have overcome a baying media eager to paint him as a villain, a spoiled sporting public desperate for a successor to Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter, and his opponents on the court.
The best part though? Kyrgios will have overcome himself.