The talented Nick Kyrgios makes headlines in spite of tennis. He’s 21 years old, and he boasts power, athleticism and skills that could see him become the modern Pete Sampras. He’s also broken down barriers of professional conduct with rude behaviors that have earned him “bad boy” status in many columns.
Kyrgios’ young career can be summed up in the past two weeks. He won a big title at level-500 Tokyo, but a few days later, he shamelessly tanked his match against a journeyman, while shouting at fans and giving lip to the chair umpire.
The short and the shame of it all boiled down to a $16,500 fine, another $25,000 fine and an eight-week suspension that would not allow him back to tennis until mid-January. He could have his suspension reduced to three weeks if he agreed to plans of action that would require counseling from a sports psychologist.
So far, Kyrgios has apologized (with words) to try to repair some of the damage, but it runs much deeper than that.
Despite tremendous offers of support and nurturing from Tennis Australia, perhaps the greatest tennis nation in the world, Kyrgios is reluctant to listen to anyone. He has no coach, little discipline and behaves like a cyclone, tearing through the sport and laying waste to traditional decorum. He’s Keyser Soze with a tennis racket.
It’s not too late for Kyrgios to become a Grand Slam winner, but after two years of raving potential, he is more likely to be a sad disappointment with an underwhelming career.
Biting the Hands That Feed Him
There’s a fictional Native American story about a rattlesnake who pleads with a girl to pick him up and carry him out of the cold weather. She refuses to trust him despite his flattery. “If you help me, I will be kind to you,” the snake says. “I just need a chance.”
She agrees to pick him up, carry him home and give him warmth. He immediately bites her.
“Ouch! You promised you would not bite me,” she yells. “I trusted you!”
“You knew what I was when you picked me up,” the snake hissed as it slithered away.
Kyrgios has spurned Tennis Australia repeatedly, making detrimental comments about Aussie legend Patrick Rafter, getting removed from Davis Cup competition in September 2015 and trading barbs with teammate Bernard Tomic, who carries his own tainted baggage.
What can anyone do for Kyrgios when he will not accept help?
Give him another chance of course.
Team Australia responded to the ATP’s suspension of Kyrgios but reiterated their support of its young star.
“We believe it’s our responsibility to help Nick, along with all our young athletes, improve both professionally on court as a player, and personally,” the organization said, as reported by Tom Gainey for Tennis X. “We have always offered assistance and advice to Nick and his team and will continue to do so.
Be careful. Snakes bite.
Conditioned to Fail
Kyrgios might be inspired to get in better shape and take conditioning seriously if he was a top contender. Of course, it’s more unlikely he can be a top contender unless he gets in shape.
Is it the chicken or the egg? Most athletes understand it requires a dedicated regimen for a chance at the top, but Kyrgios has chosen the primrose path of idleness.
In July, at Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis tournament of the year, Kyrgios spent a couple hours on his PlayStation. His opponent later that day was eventual champion Andy Murray.
“To be honest, I woke up this morning and played computer games,” Kyrgios said his post-match press conference. “Is that the greatest preparation? I don't know. But it was fun.”
And so it goes. No coach or rigorous plan of conditioning. No real direction to get to the top, while admitting that he is ambivalent about commitment.
In the aforementioned press conference, he said: “Just, like, one week I'm pretty motivated to train and play. I'm really looking forward to getting out there. One week I'll just not do anything. I don't really know a coach out there that would be pretty down for that one.”
The only sound he heeds is the siren's song of apathy that lulls him perilously closer to the rocks. Although, the riddle is much more complicated than tennis vs. PlayStation.
Australian doubles great Todd Woodbridge opined that Kyrgios’ potential hinges on his physical and mental conditioning, as reported by Australian Associated Press (h/t ESPN). “It's through the practices, through the media commitments. It's through nervous tension and stress. They're all elements that add up to making you tired, and the fitter and stronger you are, the easier that becomes.”
More Fire Than Ice
Tennis is more than hot-blooded adrenaline. Unlike American football, rugby or boxing, excessive emotion in tennis is best contained. There are exceptions, but it’s been over three decades since the combustible displays of Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe produced major-winning tennis.
Generally speaking, tennis legends are highly successful in large part because they can stay cool when others panic. They exude confidence and composure where others melt away like frost in a frying pan.
Rod Laver, the greatest Aussie of them all, modelled the cool stoicism that would be the tennis DNA for Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer to name a few. Even fiery players like Boris Becker, Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are far more in control with their dedication to tennis. They (have) manage(ed) their emotions as assets to winning tennis.
Kyrgios is so far from showing mental composure in tennis; he would be more likely to cross the Pacific Ocean with a paddle boat.
The problem is not so much when Kyrgios is on the big stage with nothing to lose in upsetting stars like Nadal, Federer or Stan Wawrinka. Instead, he loses his focus against marginal players like Mischa Zverev, Illya Marchenko and Denis Shapovalov.
He’s not cut in the cloth of Sampras. He's more like two-time major winner Marat Safin, who had loads of tennis ability but was subject to mood swings and motivational deficits.
As tennis’ Golden Age fades away, young players will eventually mature into winners with their own styles and performances. It might include a penitent Kyrgios, who has sacrificed his wayward behaviors and chosen a road of guts and glory.
Then again, Kyrgios might be headed nowhere at all, wandering forever in darkness like a doomed anti-hero in a Greek tragedy.
“The tour is forcing his hand," Woodbridge remarked in the AAP article. "If he chooses not to [seek professional help], then he'll have a fairly short career, and this will be a discussion we'll have in a different way.”
That would be a shame, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it unless Kyrgios walks in a new direction. He alone will decide whether to be pulled in by helping hands.