“If you don’t know where you are going, you might land someplace else.” – Yogi Berra
It is one of the most intriguing match-ups in tennis. Arguably, Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios are the greatest talents of their generations – shotmakers who create and amaze. Roger is an artist with an inner-street fighting man. Artist, king, ambassador and icon, he flows, an easy mountain brook in June that gleams.
Kyrgios is a volcano – brilliant and gifted perhaps beyond any other young player. His shots amaze. His serves are blurs. His forehand flashes – instant offense. Fans know they dare not look away. At any moment, the 23-year-old Aussie might unleash a shot of wonder that you’ve never seen before.
The man-child oozes creativity. Plus, he’s a person of the people who visits kids in hospitals, takes his charity work seriously, loves hoops and has milkshakes before his big matches. He likes rollercoasters and chats with the staff in player cafeterias as they make smoothies.
His shots are smooth. His behavior isn’t. He’ll taunt foes on court. He’ll say, hey, your girlfriend is making it with another guy. He’ll go after fans at Wimbledon who are razzing him. He loses interest in tennis matches as fast as an eighth grader tunes out a trig class. He gets suspended for tanking. Thursday he yawned. As far as writers go, they should issue crash helmets before pressers – “Caution, enter at your own risk.”
Men’s tennis has a long list of sizzling stars with an “It” factor. Gonzalez, Nastase, Connors, McEnroe, Becker, Agassi, Ivanisevic, Safin, Roger and Rafa all come to mind. These days, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov are appealing young talents. But tennis’ reigning rebel-in-residence, Mr. Kyrgios, is right there on the list. He’s compelling, and so are the differences between the impetuous Aussie and the chill Swiss master.
As a young teen, just 13, boy Roger Federer made a decision. He’d leave home and go hundreds of miles south to Switzerland’s tennis center near Geneva.
This was not Michael Agassi banishing his kicking and screaming son Andre, who was devastated when he was forced to go to the Bollettieri Academy, thousands of miles away. In contrast, Roger was a kid on a mission who told his parents that he would be leaving home – never mind that he didn’t speak French like everyone else in Geneva.
Then, when Roger was about to turn pro, he left his foundational coach Peter Carter, who was a father figure to him, in order to seek the guidance of former pro Peter Lundgren, who knew the circuit so well.
Yes, as a kid Roger had to clean toilets for a week when he threw his racket. Later, his wife-to-be winced at his displays of temper. But Roger eventually grew out of his adolescent fury to become not only the greatest player of all time, but the most professional player of all time. He treats the game as a serious business. Nobody schedules with more meticulous care. His conditioning (it’s hot in Dubai) is legendary. He’s avoided chronic injuries. Only once as a top star has he smashed his racket on court. His movement, his mind, his game and his life exude balance. He’s wise – he smiles.
Nick’s different. His game can soar. He beat Roger, Rafa and Novak the first time he faced them. With his whiplash forehand and blur-serve, he can take the racket out of any player’s hands. But he can’t keep his head in the game. He’s the only player in the top 100 without a coach, and already he’s suffered injuries.
He’s confided that it’s “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 way of life…There are players…that strive to get better every day – the one-percenters. I’m not that guy.” He dismissed his 2017 season as “diabolical.” This year hasn’t been much better. He’s now ranked No. 30 and has never gotten beyond the quarters of a Slam.
Ups and downs are Kyrgios’ signature. Breathtaking winners one moment, baffling, bonehead errors the next. That same penchant for flash changes is abundantly clear in his answers to the press. I asked him to name the two or three strongest parts of his game. He replied, “My unbelievable movement and my returns.” Then he switched gears, and with brilliant sarcasm and self-parody, said that his other great asset was “my mental strength.” Everyone laughed. He stood and exited the press room.
Not a laughing matter for serious tennis sages is how Kyrgios is squandering his talent. It’s hardly at the level of Chilean Marcelo Rios a generation ago. Still, noted Mary Carillo, “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 and the rogue.”
And you know what, that’s okay. That’s Nick. He doesn’t have a coach and he doesn’t want to conform. You are supposed to crave winning a Slam. Nick doesn’t. And more than that, he mopes, he broods and seems to tank. Cliff Drysdale said it was unacceptable for a pro not to care in a Grand Slam. Some say he’s an embarrassment. But that’s Kyrgios. He’s his own unpredictable man in his own world – maybe that’s why he appeals. Jon Wertheim calls him “a guilty pleasure.” Many today in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium would agree.
Nick sprinted from the gate and had his opportunity, with four breakpoints in the seventh game of the first set. But Federer is nothing if not a great game manager who knows well the peak moments in a match. He rallied brilliantly and fought to get back to deuce and eventually won the key game, which lasted almost nine minutes. He soon broke Kyrgios and surged to 6-4, 6-1, 7-5 win.
More than this he gained another place in tennis lore with an inspired instant-classic shot. Off yet another Kyrgios drop shot, the old man sprinted five fast steps to flick a miracle – just inches above the court – forehand around the net post.
Afterward, Federer recalled his other great trick shots: a smash off of an Andy Roddick smash in Basel; a flick winner against Agassi in Dubai and a key tweener against Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Open.
Later, Kyrgios said the trick shot was unbelievable, while many of the 23,000 fans were left to wonder whether the game’s most dazzling young magician would someday soon gather his talents, focus his mind and become a Grand Slam champ. That, for sure, would be one mean trick.
And one other thing. Here in New York, Kyrgios, the man from Canberra, Australia, reminds us of Berra. That is, the late, great Yankee Yogi Berra, who gave us so many insights.
The mind-boggling wordsmith told us, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Krygios’ loss today seemed like so many others.
Berra told us that “Little things are big,” and a little adjustment by Kyrgios to actually hire a coach could have a massive impact. But Kyrgios long has seemed adrift, and, as Yogi said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might land someplace else.”
Still, Nick’s many fans hope that Yogi was right when he told us, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”