Updated: July 1, 2021 10:31:47 am
By Christopher Clarey
Getting Nick Kyrgios out of semi-sabbatical and on a plane out of Australia took something special.
“It’s Wimbledon,” he said before this Grand Slam tournament began. “It’s the pinnacle of tennis. I’m going to get myself some strawberries and chill, hit some serves, hit some volleys, enjoy the grass and chill out.”
He neglected to mention that he was also going to win a match, an edgy five-setter against No. 21 seed Ugo Humbert that stretched over two days and required Kyrgios to dig rather deep instead of playing it cool.
It was a rematch of their Australian Open second-round duel in February, which Kyrgios also won in five sets. After this match resumed Wednesday afternoon with Kyrgios and Humbert tied at 3-3 in the fifth set, Kyrgios had to recover from a nasty slip behind the baseline that left him shouting in pain and grabbing at his hip. He also had to find a way to break Humbert’s serve at 7-7 and then fend off two break points in the final game before closing out the victory, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 9-7.
“Not too bad for a part-time player,” Kyrgios said with a grin.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 30, 2021
As ever, he had much to say, to himself, his opponent, his friends in the players’ box, the fans in the stands and the cameras pointing in his direction.
At times, there is more running dialogue in his matches than running.
On Tuesday night, before Kyrgios and Humbert were stopped by Wimbledon’s 11 o’clock curfew, he sat in his chair and pleaded into the camera for a return of true grass-court tennis.
“It should be fast,” he said. “They’ve made it slow. This isn’t grass anymore.”
On Wednesday afternoon, after a night’s sleep and a quick turnaround, he mixed expletives with small talk in the waiting area before retaking the court.
“Just want to get it done with, I’m so tired. I just want to go have a beer,” he said.
“Dog & Fox would be unreal,” he said of a large Wimbledon pub he frequented in the days before the pandemic and tournament bubbles.
Djokovic on Day One: 46-second service game
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 30, 2021
With all that off his chest, Kyrgios walked back on to No. 1 Court, warmed back up and played with genuine conviction, producing big serves and two particularly exquisite two-handed backhands under pressure in the final game that both landed on the line.
“When Nick’s playing good, he’s one of the best,” conceded Humbert, a Frenchman who won a grass-court tournament this month in Halle, Germany, while Kyrgios was still officially on break.
Kyrgios has played nowhere outside Australia since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. He has played no tournaments at all since the Australian Open in February.
Nobody else in the singles draw at Wimbledon this year was able to win a round with that kind of preparation. He arrived in London last week, four days before the tournament began, and told reporters that he was using the journey as “a vacation,” even if he knew that sounded “ridiculous.”
Call it a working vacation for now. He will play Gianluca Mager, an unseeded Italian, in the second round Thursday.
“A lot of people were telling me there’s no chance, there’s no point in you going with that short preparation,” Kyrgios said. “I was hearing a load of things. I think it was Gilbert telling me, ‘There’s no chance you can come off the couch and compete at this level against players.’ I’m like: ‘Dude, I know my game. I know how to play on grass. I’m not scared of anyone in the draw. I know, if I believe and I’m feeling good mentally, I know what I’m capable of.’”
Brad Gilbert, the former player who is now an ESPN analyst, said that he had no such conversation with Kyrgios, but that he recognizes him as an outlier.
“What makes something like this possible when you put him on grass is his serve,” Gilbert said Wednesday. “If he didn’t have a big serve, I don’t think all of the sudden you can get off the couch and be a factor.”
Gilbert, who long coached Andre Agassi, added: “He can play some crazy shots, hit like three drop shots in a row and then just rip the ball. You’re just not sure what is coming your way.”
None of this is to say that Kyrgios is maximizing his potential. His talent and taste for big occasions often come with imprecise footwork, fluctuating commitment and suboptimal conditioning.
He has yet to get past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament. He is leaving plenty on the table for now at age 26 but seems aware of the deal he has made with himself. Some in the sport believe he is more comfortable as the upset artist with lower expectations than as the favorite who must grind out routine victories against lesser lights (such as Mager, so stay tuned).
What is clear is that Kyrgios was uncomfortable rejoining the tour until now. As he stayed in Australia during the pandemic, he was sometimes critical of his peers, including top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who organized a charity tour during which he and several other players tested positive for the coronavirus.
Kyrgios said he had asked himself if he would “be in a good mental space over this year” if he played regularly in a bubble environment. The answer was no.
“That’s why this week I brought my girlfriend, I brought my best friend,” he said. “I wanted to bring two people that I trusted, that I was very comfortable around, that made me feel good.”
Kyrgios can be prickly and sullen with the news media, but the edge was absent Wednesday as he leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, and spoke at length about several subjects.
For example: Venus Williams, the 41-year-old American who lost, 7-5, 6-0, in the second round of singles to Ons Jabeur on Wednesday. But her 23rd Wimbledon is not over. She and Kyrgios will play mixed doubles together for the first time.
“At 41, I don’t think I’ll be able to honestly hit another ball,” Kyrgios said. “She’s a legend.”
And her love of the game is beyond question, while Kyrgios’s relationship with tennis remains a work in progress.
“Maybe she can teach me some of that calm, the water-type energy,” he said. “I’m super excited. I can tell she’s excited, too. I don’t think she ever thought back in the day she’d be playing mixed doubles with the bad boy of tennis.”
But when you watch Kyrgios on days like Wednesday, it is clear he can be much more than that.