By David Waldstein
If a 10-day slice of Nick Kyrgios’ career could be placed on a microscope slide, the most representative period may have come in early August, in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open.
For a few nights at a tournament in Washington, Kyrgios showcased his most endearing, playful and utterly talented self. He joked on court with his doubles partner, Stefanos Tsitsipas and consulted with delighted fans about where to place serves on his way to the singles title. It was arguably the most promising week of a career marked by much turmoil.
“Just looking back on some of the places I’ve been the last six months, it’s crazy to think how much I’ve turned it around,” Kyrgios said at the time, describing the win as momentum toward the U.S. Open.
But only 10 days later at the Cincinnati Masters, Kyrgios — the enchanting prince of the trick shot and a smiling dispenser of autographs to children — melted down enough to justify a $113,000 fine from the ATP.
Kyrgios, 24, yelled into the sky about a referee he said had repeatedly wronged him. He took two rackets into a “bathroom break” and smashed both, then returned to the court as if nothing had happened. And finally, he stood flat-footed on the service court, while wrapping tape around the handle of his racket, and implored his opponent, Karen Khachanov, to go ahead and serve — even though Kyrgios was holding his racket upside down at the time.
After dropping a tiebreaker in the second set, Kyrgios appeared to lose interest in the third. After he was defeated, he did not shake hands with the chair umpire and gestured as if spitting in his direction. For the accumulation of transgressions, Kyrgios was fined more than double his earnings for the tournament.
Kyrgios’ complexity as a delightful entertainer and petulant disrupter has made him one of the sport’s most confounding players for fans. Even tennis experts — including some who have faced similar situations — find Kyrgios difficult to predict.
“Anyone know where Sigmund Freud is?” John McEnroe quipped last week.
Kyrgios will play Steve Johnson in the first round of the U.S. Open on Tuesday night, and the question remains: Which kind of performance will Johnson and the fans see?
Kyrgios has never made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event and has not made it past the fourth round of one since 2015. His best showing at the U.S. Open has been reaching the third round, including last year, when he lost to Roger Federer. After that match, Kyrgios acknowledged that much of his struggle was mental.
“If I want it enough,” he said, “I have a coaching option, psychology option.”
In May, Kyrgios was defaulted from the Italian Open after he threw a chair onto the court in a tirade after being penalized a game for his third conduct violation. Sometimes, even court officials get into trouble at a Kyrgios match. At last year’s U.S. Open, umpire Mohamed Lahyani came down from the chair and seemed to give a distracted Kyrgios a pep talk during his second-round victory against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Lahyani, a respected umpire, was suspended two tournaments for the neutrality-breaking infraction.
After the Cincinnati meltdown, Kyrgios returned to Flushing Meadows early last week and worked out on the practice courts in front of scores of eager spectators; Kyrgios is just too irresistible to ignore. He hit with Thanasi Kokkinakis, a boyhood friend and fellow professional player.
The scene was full of laughter and wicked, jumping forehands that delighted the fans, and no trace of the anger and frustration on display a week earlier. In the middle of the practice session, Pam Shriver, a former U.S. Open finalist and now an ESPN broadcaster, approached Kyrgios for a live interview.
Kyrgios asked if Kokkinakis could join in, an acknowledgement of his friend’s wild-card entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open. Shriver joked that Kyrgios was kind of a wild card in his own right, and he laughed and said he had actually had fun in Ohio.
Later, Kyrgios, who is popular among his peers, canvassed the players’ lounge, laughing with multiple players before collecting another friend, Sascha Zverev, and challenging an acquaintance to find someone else for a two-on-two basketball game — hoops being Kyrgios’ favourite pastime. (He says he prefers the camaraderie of a team sport.)
Shriver was later asked if Kyrgios, who is ranked 29th in the world, is talented enough to win a Grand Slam — or at least break into the top 10 (his highest ranking was No. 13 in 2016).
“He is,” she said. “But talent includes your emotional side as well. To be an athlete is physical, mental and emotional. Obviously, physically he can stack up, except he’s not consistently trained, so he’s not in the same physical condition as Rafa has ever has been, or Novak ever has been. Whether or not he can eventually, I don’t know.”
Few expect Kyrgios to ever possess the unyielding focus that characterizes Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, as Shriver noted. But there are times, as in the Cincinnati Masters, when he seems unable to control himself.
Kyrgios is not the first player who struggled to quell emotions. McEnroe had many infamous outbursts. But he never quit competing, and that is what he and so many others find so perplexing about Kyrgios. Even in Washington, Tsitsipas said, “it felt like sometimes he didn’t care at all.”
During that definitive 10-day span this month, many of Kyrgios’ supporters threw up their hands, exasperated to see the playful winner in Washington give way to the angry loser in Ohio.
“Everyone is pulling for him because he brings something to the table. But I’ve said this to him: What he’s got to do is bring a consistent effort, which he doesn’t do,” McEnroe said. “In any sport, that just can’t last. Eventually, it will hurt him to the point where it will become irreparable.”