The Ringmaster in Sneakers – Kyrgios Through to the Wimbledon Quarters

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Wimbledon

Serena emerged after a year’s hiatus. An ascendent Pole who’d won 35 matches in a row seemed poised to make a run to the title. Two of the best players of all time, Nole and Rafa, set off on a road to glory. Brits and Americans surged, and the legends of the game gathered to celebrate the 100th year of Centre Court.

But all that hardly mattered to many a Wimbledon fan, and it certainly didn’t matter to a strapping, well-tattooed Aussie rebel with a forehand and a persecution complex.

Nick Kyrgios – fine, furious and utterly watchable – stole the first week’s show at Wimbledon. His fabulous serve, his uncanny sense of the court, his subtle flicks and massive blasts draw us in. But it is his temper, his free-form anger and his “I’ll do it my way” singularity that mesmerizes. 

Golfers love holes in one. Boxing fans lust for blood, car racing spectators crave crashes. But tennis crowds relish Nick’s implosions and psychic adventures.

So, we ask, is this ringmaster in sneakers the most unpredictable star in the history of the game?  Jimmy Connors’ immortal quip, “This is what they [the fans] want, this is what they’ll get!” comes to mind. Nick openly says he wants to put on a show.

Kyrgios has the same me-against-the-world sensibility that Connors did. His explosions can be McEnroe-esque. Las Vegas’ Andre Agassi was an inventive entertainer, but Nick’s scripts have more twists. Kyrgios turns first-round matches into must-watch circuses. At times he seems like a reincarnation of the combustible Romanian, Ilie Nastase. 

Edgy and defensive, Nick needs a foe. He’ll take it to anyone. He’ll spit at spectators, swear at linesmen, tell umps they are a disgrace and say the ATP doesn’t give a f–k.  

He’ll flick a ball into the stands and a kid will break into tears. He’ll bash his racket after a loss and it will nearly careen into an Indian Wells ball boy. He’s been fined almost $800,000. And no other elite star so relishes slicing and dicing the media.   

Kyrgios’s third-round battle against Stefanos Tsitsipas was an epic bad-blood soap opera. Nick said Stef was soft, unliked in the locker room, and he should have been booted out of their match. The Greek said Nick was a bully and can be evil and hurtful. Strong words, but some would agree. 

Of course, the Aussie can enthrall. His athleticism and hat-backwards, between-the-legs creativity delights packed stadiums and spikes ratings. He’s box office.

But he’s hardly a nine-to-five type of guy. He hates routine. The 27-year-old is only No. 40 in the world and hasn’t been beyond the quarterfinals at a major.  

Boredom, quiet, ease and phonies run counter to his religion. And today he had a problem. He was playing on the most serene court in the world, Centre Court. It’s a challenge to make a ruckus here. His match started at 11 AM against Brandon Nakashima, a mild-mannered 20-year-old foe who’s hard to hate. Plus, the Californian brought his great backhand to Centre Court. 

Kyrgios came out flat as a pancake and later said that Brandon’s serve was unbelievable and at times his returns were great. Nick was struggling with a bum shoulder. The court seemed small, and he had little feel for the ball. Still, he won two of the first three sets. But Brandon won the fourth set to force a fifth, where he led 1-0, 30-0.

Then Nick called on his nine years of experience. He knew he’d never lost a five-set match at Wimbledon, and that as a 19-year-old, ranked only No. 144, he’d upset Nadal. Kyrgios’s game rose to new heights. His anticipation was cat-like, his speed was lightning fast, his serve was hard to read and he felt a surprising calm and joy.

After scoring a runaway 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-2 win, Nick confided, “I just feel like I’ve been through so much. I feel I’m able to stay more composed. Today I was almost smiling and laughing to myself knowing I was locked in an absolute battle, where in the past I wasn’t able to enjoy that…I was almost enjoying the competitiveness…Playing Centre Court Wimbledon, fully packed crowd, I was able to just say, ‘Wow, look how far I’ve come.’ …Bouncing the ball before I served…I was like, ‘We’re here, we’re competing at Wimbledon, putting in a good performance mentally.’”

He noted that his career has been a roller coaster and claimed that no one in the media knows who he is. He admitted he has a massive chip on his shoulder. “I wake up and read things, and I just laugh. And I never forget things…people say, whether it was three, four years ago…It’s hilarious.”

Nick spoke of his improved daily habits, how he’s not locked into social media anymore, has good friends in the locker room and is comfortable in his own skin. The coach-less wonder noted, “I’ve got an incredible support crew. My physio is one of my best friends. My best friend is my agent. I’ve got the best girlfriend in the world…I can reflect on all those dark times, when I pushed them all away.

“Now to sit here [into the] quarterfinals of Wimbledon, feeling good, feeling composed, feeling mature, having that around me, I’m extremely blessed.” And so, on this calm day of triumph, is tennis.

Kyrgios will be in his first Wimbledon quarters, where he’ll face Chilean Cristian Garin, who scored an epic fifth-set win over Aussie Alex De Minaur.

On the fourth of July, Taylor Fritz beat Aussie qualifier Jason Kubler 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 to reach his first ever Slam quarterfinal. The Eastbourne champion is on an eight-match winning streak and hasn’t dropped a Wimbledon set so far. The first American man to reach a Slam quarterfinal since the 2020 Aussie Open will again face Rafa Nadal, whom he beat this year in the Indian Wells final. The Spaniard, who had a cracked rib when he lost to Fritz is now ten matches from winning the Grand Slam. Tonight he wobbled just a bit, but he beat Botic Van de Zandschulp.

American Amanda Anisimova downed France’s Harmony Tan, who’d beaten Serena in the first round. The 20-year-old Floridian is in her first ever Slam quarterfinal and will next face 2019 Wimbledon champ Simona Halep, who’s now coached by Serena’s former coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Ons Jabeur is the only woman among the top ten seeds still in the draw.

Sockcoco – that would be the mixed doubles team of old Jack Sock and young Coco Gauff – won, and they hope to bring the mixed doubles title to America.

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