Naturally, when Roger Federer skipped the clay court season, he was greatly missed. The ATP without Roger is a like your morning pancakes without the syrup. But the four-and-a-half-month absence of young, charismatic Nick Kyrgios also left a gap. After all, there is no more compelling young presence on the court than the sweet-one-day, volatile-the-next Aussie. Here’s one mate who packs stadiums and stirs the tennis milkshake.
There are younger players in tennis’ “Next Gen,” but none sizzle with Kyrgios’ live-wire electricity. Just 23, he combines blunt power with a seat-of-his-pants spontaneity rivaled only by Gael Monfils. It’s as hard to predict what will come off of his racket as it is to gauge what words will spring forth from his mouth – almost randomly, he slaps lightning-fast forehand winners and second-serve aces. He can be counted on to play his best against the greats – last year he scored four wins over top 10 players.
The guy’s talent has an unmistakably original flair. “His physical skills can match…anyone in the sport,” Justin Gimelstob observed. “We’ve seen him take the racket out of Federer’s hand, Djokovic’s hand, Nadal’s hand…This is a guy who can do everything – the way he moves, his ball-striking, his offense, his defense, his touch – it’s remarkable.”
Also remarkable is a candid, characterful, shoot-from-the-hip article Kyrgios just penned for the Players Voice. It has a great opening. He writes, “This next sentence might sound a bit weird coming from me. I’ve missed tennis.” From there, he gives us a number of classic, blunt Kyrgios self-assessments. “I suspect I haven’t smashed my last racquet,” he admits. After describing his new trainer Ashcon Rezazadeh – for seasons, the brashly independent Kyrgios had been playing without a trainer – as “mature,” he shares this exchange with his mother:
“I said to mum, ‘Why am I not like that?’”
“‘People mature at different rates,’ she said. ‘You’ll get there!”
Sure enough, we see a new maturity in passages of the piece. While Kyrgios measures his recovery from elbow pain by his ability to “serve bombs without any pain,” he follows it up with some words that, while predictable from most players, are decidedly shocking coming from him. “There’s been enough time before Wimbledon to get my match fitness up,” he says. “Put that together with the gym work I’ve put in and I’m hoping to make an impact.”
Like Sloane Stephens coming back from an ankle surgery to sweep the US Open, could we possibly be seeing the dawn of a new Kyrgios, who is grateful for the game after it was briefly taken from him? Maybe. Kyrgios’ results in the grass warm-ups for Wimbledon have been promising. In Stuttgart, he tested Federer, taking him to three sets with two tiebreaks, and at Queens he beat Andy Murray and defending champ Feli Lopez to reach the semis, pushing eventual champ Marin Cilic to a pair of breakers.
Of course, Queens also saw a flare-up of the famous Kyrgios temper. During the Cilic match he turned angrily to his team and used a water-bottle to mimic a sexual gesture, a crude indulgence that resulted in a $23,500 fine. Afterward, when a reporter asked him about the outburst, he snapped, “Do you swear?…Yes or no?…Do you swear? Okay, great. Next question.”
With all this in mind, John McEnroe and Chrissie Evert were asked what it would take for the Aussie to live up to his potential.
“How much time do we have?” quipped McEnroe, who has been both critical of and expressed interest in coaching Kyrgios. “Nick, to me, is the most talented tennis player of the last 10 years, since Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, Federer. He’s an incredible talent.”
Evert’s insights were piercing. “I’ll talk about Nick a little bit because he’s [been] down in Boca [at the Evert Academy] quite a bit,” she said. “I observe him. The thing about Nick, he is his own person. We can just stand by and marvel at his talent, [and] appreciate the big wins, but expect the big losses, too. This is his temperament.
“I don’t know how much you can teach hunger and focus and commitment. You can encourage it, but until it gets into his persona, until it gets into his conscience and his heart, we’re not going to see the best of Nick Kyrgios. It’s just the way he is.
“Often the most talented players, when things come very easy to them, mentally [are] not as tough, because they don’t have to be. It’s the grinders who have to work harder that are sometimes mentally tougher. He’s got to find that desire and that hunger inside himself.”