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05th Jul 2019

Tennis needs Nick Kyrgios far more than Nick Kyrgios needs tennis

Kyle Picknell

Nick Kyrgios arrived at Wimbledon this year like a tornado announcing its presence to a decrepit garden shed

Or a sale-hungry shopper to a medium-sized branch of Next on a bank holiday Monday. He rampaged through the place, this preserve of quaint strawberry-munching politeness, this last bastion of pure, bespoke, Britishness, and tipped it on its head. He took clothes from their hangers and flung them to the floor with all the disdain of a hungry child. He didn’t queue for the changing rooms. He was, and let me give you a second to catch your breath here, a bit sulky when staff told him they didn’t have his size in that particular top.

Worse, he only made it to the second round before succumbing to Rafael Nadal.

Worse still, he didn’t even thank us for having him.

And even worse than that, he didn’t buy a single thing. Well, bar a (presumably non-alcoholic) drink or two in the Dog & Fox the night before his match against the Spaniard.

Welcome to the Nick Kyrgios show, starring the man himself, regular 130mph+ second serves and public self-flagellation. Welcome to the most entertaining tennis player on the planet not named Roger Federer.

In his first-round encounter against his grizzled, moustachioed compatriot Jordan Thompson, a functional if completely soulless opponent, someone the commentators would describe as a ‘proper’ tennis player if only because he scraps for every point and pumps his fist occasionally, Kyrgios took the entire fourth set off after Thompson broke his serve to go 2-0 up early on.

He took the entire fourth set off to conserve energy for the fifth. Or just because he couldn’t be arsed. It lasted only 18 minutes (compared to the set prior that clocked in at over an hour) and he swung his racket with gusto just once. Or maybe twice. It was hard to tell. And it was magic.

The commentators, who had spent the entire match up to that point questioning Kyrgios’ mental state, temperament, lifestyle… everything short of the man’s entire existence, reacted as though he had set Buckingham Palace ablaze and then mooned the fire brigade once they arrived. “It’s hard to see a way back for Kyrgios here…” they murmured in hushed tones more befitting of funeral small talk than a tennis tournament as the giant Aussie slumped from side to side, meekly shrugging at the eminently returnable serves that bounced past him.

They reminded the audience that he went jet-skiing before his win at the Acapulco Open in March, as though it was clearly the behaviour of a deranged, tormented soul.

(He’s in fucking Acapulco, lads. What do you want him to do? Stay up all night biting his fingernails and reading Proust?)

They needn’t have worried for Nick’s sake, though, as he came back in the decisive fifth set and blew Thompson out of the water. Kyrgios then chucked him back in and blew him back out again. All with that big booming serve, fiery array of groundstrokes and audacious, impetuous volleys at the net.

In the end, it was easy. Comfortable. And yet, even that was held as a case against him. Imagine if he tried all the time. Imagine if he cared. Imagine if he had a coach beside him. A life coach. A tennis coach. A Buddhist monk. A wise, mysterious desert fox that knew the infinite secrets of the universe. Anyone. Imagine what he could achieve then.

The Assassination of Jordan Thompson by the Coward Nick Kyrgios, however, was just a gentle preamble compared to his slog against Rafael Nadal on Thursday. Here is an incomplete list of things that happened during the match, roughly in order:

– Down 5-2 and serving for the game in the first set, Kyrgios aced Nadal with the kind of underarm serve that can only be described as ‘the ultimate act of tennis shithousery’

– Several thousands of people watching at home fumed at their televisions, tutting and calling it disrespectful

– Several thousands of people injected it directly into their veins

– Up 3-1 in the second set and once more serving for a crucial game, he did it again

– He hit 27 other aces, most of them sonic-boom thunderclaps deep into the corners

– One of them was a 136mph second serve

– Read the above again

– 136mpfh second serve, lads

– Mpfh stands for ‘miles per fucking hour’ by the way

– After a particularly bad call that went against him, Kyrgios attempted a bunch of completely obscene returns against Nadal’s service game, missed them all, sat back in his seat after the lost set and called the umpire “a disgrace”

– He also told him it was cute “he felt important”

– But also that, ultimately, “you’re not important”

– A Nadal shot is called out but Kyrgios tells Nadal to challenge it. He does, and the call is reversed in Nadal’s favour

– After one deep baseline groundstroke to Nadal’s forehand, which the Mallorcan promptly pummeled into the corner for a point, Kyrgios began screaming to himself: “To his backhand! His backhand! That’s fucking trash Nick! TRASH!”

– A while later, Kyrgios, err, twatted – yeah I think ‘twatted‘ is the only verb I can really use here – a 115mph forehand aimed directly at Nadal’s body, who could only just about get his racket to it and divert it into the net

– Nadal, in response, scowled at the Australian for several seconds

– Kyrgios was oblivious and started twirling his racket around his finger

– Done scowling, Nadal served for the next point and double-faulted for the only time in the match

– Nick Kyrgios started hopping and skipping around the court between points

– Nadal won and was, throughout the last two sets, visibly more tense and emotional than during any other second-round match in his entire career

– And then two players shook hands about as enthusiastically as a teenage boy meeting their girlfriend’s terrifying step-dad for the very first time

The three or so hours of tennis was exhilarating, the psychological battle between one of the sport’s greatest ever players – one famous for his adamantine fortitude and will  – and, by most accounts, an insolent, brattish schoolchild pretending to be a ‘proper’ tennis player, even more so. How could those two factions possibly align? How could the latter possibly fluster the former?

But this is part of the problem that comes with interpreting Nick Kyrgios. Projections of him come from all the wrong places. Boris Becker, for instance, a man who played in an era when the sperm-destroying tennis shorts rode up dangerously high against the scrotum, went on a bizarrely irrelevant rant about the social media generation as endless demanders of attention. His fellow commentators spoke over and over again of how his dad must feel, watching his outbursts.

As though Kyrgios is just a teenager gaping at their phone screen. As though his father would be feeling anything other than immense pride watching his son playing at Wimbledon and frustrating the great, impervious Rafael Nadal to within an inch of his life.

They want more from Nick Kyrgios, clearly. A 24-year-old Grand Slam quarter-finalist with over $7 million in career winnings to his name. More than that, they want him to do it their way – politely and without drama or fuss. (Becker, if you needed reminding, used to smash rackets, throw balls and spit water in the direction of umpires).

Essentially, what they want is for Nick Kyrgios not to be Nick Kyrgios at all, but just another middle-tier tennis pro, a shapeless lump of krill for the blue whales at the top, the Nadals and Djokovics and Federers who don’t appear to be going anywhere soon and keep feeding and feeding and feeding. A trier. A do-gooder. A completely uninteresting athlete.

Everything he’s not.

Kyrgios’ refusal to acquiesce to this demand is a testament to the sheer,  impossible force of his personality. And his talent. For all the talk of his attitude and on-court demeanour, and how that makes him unique box office viewing in the tennis world, there isn’t much of the aesthetic joy of his game; the way he can transform from a sloping, lethargic presence into a prowling, elegant monster on the court seemingly between shots. The way that devastating right hand of his can switch from the hammer of Thor to a misshapen plastic spoon and back, all in the space of a couple of games. The way he can give up so easily just so he has to fight all the way back up the mountain again.

This is what he is, more than anything else. A deeply flawed but fucking great tennis player. And quite clearly an underappreciated one, too. I think this comes down to how, as a sporting audience, we perceive flaws in our athletes. Almost ubiquitously in the world of male tennis, the players will hide. They will pretend they are focused when their attention is waning. That they are still primed and hungry when their legs are fading beneath them. That they are calm and collected when they are rattled beyond measure. If only so their opponent doesn’t gain any mental advantage.

In both of his games at this year’s Wimbledon, Kyrgios unnerved his opponent just by being himself. How must it be to play him, a guy who takes entire sets off to conserve energy and can go from berating the umpire to offering you free points? There is nobody like him, or even close. He is a glasshouse of a tennis player. You can see right through as he plays, entire spectrums of emotion, every ounce and drop of fatigue, or frustration, or joy, or hope. Nothing is bottled up. None of the beauty nor the madness. Instead, it is laid out like a fine Persian rug. Come in, wipe your feet, take a seat. Watch a 6 foot 4, Greek-Malaysian-Australian sporting prodigy ‘s one-man interpretive dance performance of Hamlet. Buy some popcorn to go with it.

After the victory, Nadal told reporters that Kyrgios has the potential to be a grand slam winner.

After the defeat, Kyrgios told reporters that of course he was aiming for Nadal’s body with that thundering right forehand, and no, he isn’t sorry, explaining:  “Why would I apologise? I didn’t hit him. Hit his racket, no? Why would I apologise? I won the point. I mean, the dude has got how many slams, how much money in the bank? I think he can take a ball to the chest, bro. I’m not going to apologise to him at all. Yeah, I was going for him. Yeah, I wanted to hit him square in the chest. Like, he’s got decent hands.”

He then reiterated his belief that, at the moment, he doesn’t think he can contend for a grand slam. Once again, it was a case of Nick Kyrgios having to answer to other people’s expectations. Once again, he was nothing other than himself in the face of the seemingly endless scrutiny.

It is presumptuous, greedy, and arrogant to want more from him, let alone expect more, or demand it. For other tennis players, sure. The only way they could possibly entertain is by becoming champions. Instead, it’s an endless thrill just having Nick Kyrgios around. We should be thankful for his mere presence, for the giddy, grand opera that occurs every time he steps on the court. It is not he who needs to change for the better, to amend bad habits and throw off the weight of the shackles in pursuit of greatness.

It is tennis, a musty, privileged, brocade of a sport that needs to alter and reassess. In Nick Kyrgios, it has a singularly captivating entertainer and showman that it is attempting to dilute for old palates and tastes. It should worship him just for having the audacity to be here, rumbling through matches like an overtly emotional bulldozer, embodying every minute tragi-comic narrative possible in the sport.

Wimbledon is an event that yearns for sameness, year upon year. It longs for crisp, clean, whites on white, blinding, immaculate green lawns, strawberries and cream, manners and civility, hushed tones of deference and respect. It should be eternally grateful that the tornado has even noticed it, let alone bothered to stop by to shake the furniture loose and blow out the cobwebs, reminding us that this is why we watch sport in the first place: the faint hope of a chance to witness something remarkable. Something different.