In the normal world, tennis fans would’ve been preparing for the start of the 2020 French Open this week.
Full disclosure: I like Nick Kyrgios. I liked him before his loss to Rafa Nadal, before we all decided he was okay again. I’m the hipster Kyrgios fan listening to his old stuff while you all queue for tickets to his stadium show.
I like him for a few reasons, but mostly because he’s so damn entertaining. In a world of stoic Swiss tennis monoliths churning out scripted soundbites, Kyrgios is the dumb meme account you just can’t unfollow. He’s a content generation machine, just don’t always expect good content.
That brave fourth-round loss to Rafael Nadal was his career in miniature – full of booming serves, fluffed volleys, infuriating drop shots and constant self flagellation. He served underhanded again – a fault this time – and smashed a racquet. He also came back from a break down in the deciding fourth set to force a tie break, and followed all this up with a press conference replete with a jab at a rival – Daniil Medvedev – and a cryptic comment about Lleyton Hewitt. Never a dull moment with Nick.
Like many fascinating athletes, it’s hard to get the full Nick Kyrgios experience without seeing him live. He’s taller than you think, athletically rangy, and seems to do everything at half speed. Kyrgios ambles onto the court looking every bit the surly adolescent called out of his room for dinner. Headphones on, staring into space, sleep walking through the warm-up and definitely not talking to his parents or the chair umpire.
But once the ball is served he turns into a cartoon character, emotional and animated, suffering through each point with all the subtlety and anguish of a pantomime villain. Watching him go through the seven stages of grief in the first set, you wonder how he can keep it up emotionally let alone physically. Can you call a therapy time out? It’s an opera on hard court with more racquets and fewer fat people.
It’s why his rivalry with Nadal – whose every move has been fine-tuned over decades of manic practice – is so captivating. It’s like watching Miles Davis and Mozart duelling with musical instruments – not just a clash of styles, but of basic sporting philosophy.
Nadal is the personification of the 10,000 hours theory, a human ball machine, a metronome with a racquet. He doesn’t talk, he doesn’t obey the umpires call for time, he lives in his own tennis-centric world where every movement is minimised to maximise his focus and concentration. Every brush of his hair and adjustment of his shorts is as fine-tuned as his laser-guided forehand.
But where these two differ the most is how we perceive them, and that’s greatly coloured by their relative success. The world number one and second all time for majors won, Rafa gets away with – let’s be generous – a dubious adherence to the time limits placed on all players. He also plays silly buggers with his opponent when it comes to standing up and sitting down. But he’s universally loved because he’s great, because he wins and because he always mutters the right platitudes afterwards. If he was just a middling pro who had made a couple of semis, would we be so accepting?
Meanwhile, one good result and the greats were gushing in their praise for Kyrgios.
“I’ve never seen Nick battle like that,” said John McEnroe.
“If he keeps this positive attitude he’s one of the most talented players on this tour,” quipped Mats Wilander.
There was barely a but to be seen. Imagine if he ever wins something. Even the dour and frowny-faced Rafa had some words of appreciation: “I like this version of Nick Kyrgios.” Indeed, Rafa! So do I.
But I also liked the old Nick Kyrgios, who really is the new Nick Kyrgios. He’s still the frustrating enigma stretching the best to breaking point and doing it without a coach. The player who smashes a racquet and then casually tosses it to a punter in the first row. The lad who grew up worshiping LeBron James and Kobe Bryant instead of Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis. The bloke who doesn’t really like his job but just happens to be really good at it.
And maybe that’s the crux of it. Maybe it’s not the behaviour, it’s not the smart-arse remarks and smirks and clap-backs, it’s the fact he’s merely very good and not an all-time great that stops Australia from embracing him. The constant, nagging thought that if he just knuckled down and applied himself we’d be putting him in the pantheon and instead we’re complaining about his attitude. Or maybe it’s the Pepé Le Pew hair. Who knows.
All I know is there’s very few people in the world I’m more interested in watching go to work.