The Kyrgios Code: Cracking a tennis enigma
Nick Kyrgios is a strange person, isn’t he? Since starting this site a couple of years ago, I have toyed and flirted with the idea of writing a piece on him. I, like many other tennis fans, find the combination of his talent, his on-court misdemeanours and his carefree public persona utterly fascinating. But for whatever reason, I have never quite find the right time, or the right words to describe my conflicted feelings on such a complicated individual.
Today, however, I have decided to finally take the plunge. I woke up to the news this morning that Kyrgios had come from two sets to one down to win his second round match at the Australian Open against Frenchman Ugo Humbert, saving a hatful of match points along the way. Claiming an unlikely victory from behind, against a higher-ranked player and in front of a raucous home crowd, is a chapter that fits so perfectly into the Kyrgios story. So, here are my two cents on Kyrgios: the man, the player the enigma.
First, the good. I first became aware of Kyrgios, as most people did, during the 2014 Wimbledon Championships. Then 18 years old and ranked 144th, the Australian had brazenly stormed his way into the second week to book a fourth-round showdown with world number one Rafael Nadal. On a sun-drenched Centre Court, Kyrgios sent the tennis world into meltdown with an astonishing performance. With an outrageous haircut, tattoos and gold chains dangling from all angles, the teenager swept past a stunned Nadal in four sets with an incredible display of shotmaking (including a ridiculous tweener that would soon become his trademark). He was self-confident, brash and fearless. A breath of fresh air. The Wimbledon crowd couldn’t get enough.
Since then, while perhaps not living up to those stratospheric heights, he has gone on to have a solid start to his career. He matched his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance at Melbourne the following year, which is still his best Grand Slam performance. He has won six titles, including three ATP 500 tournaments, and reached the final of the Cincinnati Masters in 2017. He climbed to a career-high ranking of 13 and has 21 victories over opponents ranked inside the top-10. Most 25-year-olds, if they are not called Djokovic, Federer or Nadal, would bite your hand off for that CV.
Nevertheless, there is a prevailing feeling among the tennis crowd that Kyrgios has so far failed to fulfill his potential. The Australian is, after all, blessed with an almost unfair array of weapons to call upon. Standing at 6ft 4in, he has one of the best serves in the game (something he reportedly perfected as a junior when he realized it would save him a lot of running during matches). His forehand can shift effortlessly between bludgeoning driver to deft sand-wedge and everything in between. His backhand is as solid as he needs it to be and sometimes more so. He moves incredibly well for a big man, and has excellent feel at the net. There is, to use an overused phrase, seemingly nothing he can’t do.
If you want to get an idea for his talent, consider this: having played each of them twice, Kyrgios has never lost a match against Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas. That’s three of the world’s current top six. I don’t have all the stats in front of me, but I’m fairly certain that is an unmatched record.
So why has he not won multiple Grand Slams? For that, we need to look at the bad. For all his ability, Krygios has struggled constantly with motivation and discipline throughout his career. It is perhaps easiest to do a quick chronological roundup of the trouble he has got himself into down the years. The following is by no means an exhaustive list:
2015 — Kyrgios is accused of “tanking” (basically not giving a shit) during his second round match at Wimbledon against Richard Gasquet.
2016 — Similar tanking accusations follow his performance against Mischa Zverev at the Shanghai Masters, where the Australian walks to his chair before points have been completed and asks the umpire to “finish this match and go home.”
2019 — Kyrgios blows up after losing a match against Casper Ruud at the Rome Masters, throwing his chair across the court and swearing at a line judge. He forfeits his ranking points and prize money for the tournament. A few months later in Cincinnati he is fined USD 113k for five — yes five — separate acts of unsportsman-like conduct and receives a 16-week suspended ban.
While none of this behaviour is going to win him the role model of the year award, much of it can be chalked up to emotional responses to disappointing defeats. Anyone who has played sport knows that anger and frustration can sometimes get the better of you (I find this particularly true of tennis, although I’m not sure why).
But then there is the downright ugly. Kyrgios has a tendency to disrespect his fellow professionals, the officials, fans and the media. Once, during a match in Canada, he started taunting Stan Wawrinka that his girlfriend was sleeping with another player (Thanasi Kokkinakis, in case you’re interested). Just this week he labelled Djokovic a “tool”, and has previously called Nadal “super salty” (referring to his graciousness in defeat, not his salinity). He routinely and needlessly belittles journalists for asking him perfectly reasonable questions in post-match press conferences.
So, what do I think of him? Well, if Kyrgios is a marmite player that divides opinion among the tennis public, I probably stand — just about — in the positive column. I love watching him play. For his tennis talent, yes, but also for his theatrical instinct. Whether playing the pantomime villain or home-town hero, he excels in his role and brings the crowd along for the ride.
I also love his willingness to speak his mind and avoid the usual prepared comments other players regurgitate for the media. That should be encouraged, as should commendable acts like the money he raised for the Australian bushfires last year.
But there is a part of me that thinks — to employ his own terminology — that Kyrgios is a bit of a tool. I am by no means Djokovic or Nadal’s biggest fan, but I respect them as competitors and athletes. Most importantly, I appreciate what they have done for tennis. Kyrgios should do too. His insults of them, as well as his mistreatment of umpires and reporters, feel weak and cowardly. They were perhaps understandable when he was a young player coming through, but they are now frankly embarrassing for an established professional. Oh, and he’s also a Tottenham Hotspurs fan. So that’s not good.
As he enters his prime physical years, Kyrgios should focus on making the most of what remains of his career and understand that it is better for everyone — himself included — if the narrative is focused on his immense talents rather than his profound lack of maturity.