MELBOURNE—Rebels have their appeal. Whether you prefer John Lennon, the feel-good dreamer, or Vladimir Lenin, the Russian rabble-rouser, whether you fancy rebels with a cause from Joan of Arc to Dylan, or rebels without a cause like James Dean, the truth is that restless souls are compelling.
Rebels don’t care. Doing it their way is their tonic.
Tradition, propriety – so what? Today is the first day of our lives. All power to the imagination.
The gatekeepers insist, “Don’t you dare, you can’t do that.”
“Oh yes, I can,” counter the rebels.
Tennis was born in tradition – such a splendid Sunday diversion, It’s built on a simple rectangular court. Order is in its DNA. Today’s somber, well-meaning umps who scold emerged from a sport shaped by proper protocol.
Now our transcendent hero is Roger Federer – so very graceful and gracious, calm and accomplished. What’s not to love? At his core there is a safety. Swiss rarely rant.
Yet, just below tennis’ tranquil surface, outsiders, rogues and against-the-grain characters of every stripe have long bristled. 1920s diva Suzanne Lenglen revealed her ankles. Gussie Moran’s lace panties shook the universe. Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King tore up the script. Venus and Serena changed everything. Marat Safin and Goran Ivanisevic tried, but no one imploded the tennis universe like Ilie Nastase.
Enter rebel Nick. Like Jimmy Connors, Kyrgios has a me-against- the-world mindset. He bristles – I’m from the opposite side of the tracks, don’t tread on me. Like Jimbo, Nick’s blunt verbal blasts can sting. On-court he taunted Stan Wawrinka, saying the Swiss’ girlfriend had cheated on him. Like McEnroe, his temper flashes hot and he’s a loner who adores “being with the boys” on a team. (He led Australia to the 2017 Davis Cup semis.) Like Andre Agassi his internal feuds roar – do I even like this sport?
More than any other player, he brings to mind a crusty outsider, an American legend with a massive serve, subtle hands and a considerable chip on his shoulder. Pancho Gonzales’ parents were Mexican. Nick is the product of a Malaysian princess and a Greek house painter.
Comparisons to others are intriguing. But his brilliance is that he is so completely true to himself. Writer Linda Pearce noted, “For better or (often) worse, he is unfailingly honest and authentic; one of the most admirable Kyrgios traits is that he is who and what he is and has never tried or pretended to be anything else.”
He blasts, he flicks, he broods, he’s Nick. Last year, he scored four wins over top 10 players. He combines flash power with a jazzy spontaneity like few others not named Monfils. He slaps forehands and blasts second serves that flash lightning. He sneers at tradition. Protocol need not call on him. He’ll play some hoops just before a big match. Some are non-gluten. Nick likes his milkshakes. He’ll tank matches from Wimbledon to Singapore or hit pitty-pat serves. During the height of the Colin Kaepernick kneeling controversy, he took a knee at the Laver Cup in Prague. He wore a baseball cap with a blunt, X-rated opinion of the President. Kyrgios packs stadiums. His brilliance often astounds.
Rod Laver expressed a conventional wisdom: “Kyrgios could be the best player in the world. He has the markings of all of it…What’s he done? He’s beaten Nadal, he’s beaten Federer, darn near all of them, at their best…His mental approach has changed…Nick, is ready to get involved…he’s ready to…do something.”
Let’s hope so. The No. 20 player saw last season as diabolical. He was booed off the court at the Australian Open. He was suspended for lack of effort and he gets into it with fans, umps and the media. McEnroe, no less, asked, “Is there a greater sin in sports than not to use your sublime talent…When Nick goes through those periods when he’s not competing, it’s a black eye for the sport and for him.”
Nick himself openly speaks of having gone through a dark period, of disappointing many (including Sebastien Grosjean, who briefly coached him) and having “a constant tug-of-war between the competitor within me wanting to win, win, win and the human in me wanting to have a normal life…away from the public glare.”
No wonder critics shout, “Get a coach, Nick! You’re said to be the best talent into the game since Federer, but you only won two Grand Slam matches last year.”
Others tell Nick to train harder. Injuries forced him off the circuit for months last summer. And they want to see him volley with more precision. Todd Woodbridge noted that Nick has to learn that “you have to use your legs, your whole body, and get down low to volley well.” And Nick, how about learning to craft points with more precision.
Mary Carillo told IT, “it will be less and less easy for Nick to continue this way. Until he gets to that place himself, this guy wants to be the outlier, the rogue…Jon Wertheim calls him a guilty pleasure. But, you know at some point we might lose him. These days in the player’s box you see a coaching team and physio. With Nick you look up there and it’s not a team, its more like a prayer circle.”
Time and again I ask, “Nick, do you like your freedom?” Or Nick, ‘is freedom an important part of your game?” He never hesitates. Yes, of course, he says.
I follow-up, asking, “Where do you think that love of freedom comes from?”
“I don’t know,” he’s replied. “I had a couple of experiences in my young career…with a couple of people that have just…[I have] gone from one extreme to the other. I was in a very structured environment when I was young and I didn’t like it. I guess I have just now gone to the other extreme.”
Kyrgios prefers to block out all the noise. Sometimes he seems to echo that old Dylan complaint: “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.” But there was no doubt in a recent Melbourne headline: “Is Nick a Role Model – You’d Better Believe It.”
His fellow pro Grigor Dimitrov said, “I don’t know how he feels deep inside. We all have have to fight our demons. We all have some. It’s a matter how to harness them and let out those good spirits.”
I asked the New York Times writer Christopher Clarey, “In five years which of the new young guns are we going to be talking about?” He replied, “Do you mean who’s going to be the best, or who are we going to be talking about? Because we know who we’ll talking about – it’ll be Nick.”
Makes sense. After all, tennis’ rebel-in-residence is the most intriguing young man in tennis.