Remember the days, not long ago, when Nick Kyrgios was just another Aussie brat given to shooting off his mouth and collecting fines all over the place for his bad behavior? Audible obscenities, racket smashing, tanking matches, heckling opponents, and admitting that he’s “not dedicated” to tennis – these are just some of the controversies the tall, flashy Aussie has been involved in since that spectacular win over Rafa Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2014.
After announcing his arrival in such explosive fashion, Kyrgios proved unequal to the hype. His T-shirt slogans (he sported a “F*** Donald Trump” shirt a year ago in Australia) made more headlines than his wins. Former players including John McEnroe have gone on record to criticise Kyrgios for his lack of professionalism and commitment to the sport. Despite his enormous serve and blistering groundstrokes, it wasn’t long ago that Kyrgios seemed destined to become yet another big Aussie with a bad attitude that would keep him from realising his potential.
And yet, remarkably, this new year has already presented to us a new avatar of Nick Kyrgios, one who seems determined to prove all his critics wrong. Earlier this month, he won the warm up tournament in Brisbane, beating Grigor Dimitrov from a set down on the way to the title. This one, his fourth ATP Tour title and first tournament win in Australia just days before his home Grand Slam may have been the most significant. Instead of succumbing to pressure in front of the home crowd, he rose to the occasion, came back from deficits, and stayed both calm and resolute, two qualities he has not historically been known for.
Back in the top 20, the 22-year-old had been playing well enough to inspire confidence in Melbourne among the Australian fans at the year’s first Grand Slam. His match against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday generated more buzz than any other match at the Australian Open so far. People in the crowd milling about the grounds all day could be heard talking about Kyrgios and his chances.
Playing on Rod Laver
Billed as the marquee match of the third round, the Kyrgios-Tsonga encounter was scheduled for Friday night at Rod Laver Arena, an honour that meant world No 1 Rafa Nadal was relegated to the Margaret Court Arena next door. This would be the third time Kyrgios would play on Rod Laver. On the two previous occasions, he lost to Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych respectively. Would the third time prove lucky?
Tsonga had clawed his way back from defeat in the previous round against Denis Shapovalov, somehow eking out a five-set win. Meanwhile, Kyrgios had served 33 aces to breeze through the first two rounds without dropping a set. The Aussies hoped he would be stronger and fitter. In any case, it promised to be a great match between two entertaining players.
Kyrgios won the first set in a tiebreak. Tsonga took the second to level the match, before Kyrgios won the third in another tiebreak. As always when Kyrgios plays, there was no lack of drama, whether from his tweeners that drew gasps among the crowd, or a brief interruption as he retrieved his diamond earring from the court. But it was Tsonga who was more aggressive during the match, with more winners, more aces, and more net points played and won. He was the one going for more.
The Frenchman is usually a crowd favorite but not on this night. Kyrgios has played without a coach since last year. Andre Agassi recently said that he needs to get himself a coach if he wants to make a breakthrough. On Friday, Kyrgios took to the court without a coach, but with nearly 15,000 spectators behind him.
A couple of extremely loud French supporters sitting next to me did bravely keep up their cheers – “Allez allez Jo-Willie” – to try and compete with the thousands of raucous Aussie fans. Still, it was no contest in the stands. As the match wore on into the night, and the temperature cooled down from the extreme heat of the daytime to the mid-twenties, the atmosphere on Rod Laver became festive and fun. A group of fans in bright green shirts jumped up after nearly every point to chant, “Let’s go Niko, let’s go,” with the entire stadium erupting into applause and cheers after nearly every point.
The Australians have been craving to really get behind someone ever since former No 1 Lleyton Hewitt stopped being a real contender at the slams. Youngsters like Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic have made noises but then failed to perform consistently. More importantly, their antics and attitude have disappointed serious tennis fans and experts alike.
Recently, after failing to qualify for the main draw, Tomic made some ridiculous remarks about how he’s busy counting his millions. Tomic’s meltdowns and petulant remarks over the past twelve months have embarrassed and disappointed Aussie tennis fans. A nation with such a storied history in the sport has in recent years not had that much to cheer about.
Embracing the pressure
Kyrgios, with his enormous talent and flashy personality, has been Australia’s most exciting hope in the past few years. And now, it looks like he’s finally begun to embrace the pressure and his status in the limelight and to figure out a way to win matches consistently against the best players.
After the match against Tsonga ended in four tight sets, Jim Courier proclaimed the match was “awesome”. In the on-court interview, he said, “Channel Seven did an interview with you before the tournament and asked you if there was a movie made about Nick Kyrgios’s life, who would you like to play you? What was your answer?” Instead of supplying a proper answer, Kyrgios steered the conversation towards actor Will Smith who just happened to be court-side.
His banter with Smith even as his earring glinted in the bright lights, was a reminder of why Kyrgios could be such a huge draw for tennis if only he puts his tennis first. This week – and month – may have proved that Kyrgios is ready to dedicate himself to winning.
On Sunday, he will take on world No 3 Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round, a man he recently beat in Brisbane. Dimitrov has played two tough matches back-to-back in the intense heat. Despite the ranking, the Aussie may be regarded by some as a slight favourite going into that match. If he continues his winning ways here, it won’t come as a huge shock any more. That’s what’s awesome about it. It’s a coming of age story in Melbourne. And a nation’s hopes rest on it.