By Giri Nathan Photographs by Radka Leitmeritz
The first week of the Australian Open offered an answer to the question: What would Nick Kyrgios look like if you actually provided him with the best available conditions to succeed? As one of his most prolific apologists—man, I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was little—it’s a thought experiment I’ve mulled over for a while. There’s no question about the underlying physical talent there. The trick is fending off self-sabotage. That is hard. Maybe fundamentally impossible. But this go-around at his home Slam, many of the usual obstacles were removed, offering perhaps as clear a picture of Kyrgios’ ceiling as we’ve yet seen.
His body, for one, cooperated. The Australian moved well, taking straight-line sprints at speeds and angles I did not realize he had in his bag. There was an ankle roll, and a buttock twinge, but these passed, and he was free of those persistent issues with the hip and serving arm. He even attested to “feeling fresh” after a third-round match that clocked in at 4:26. This is a remarkable feat for anyone with this deep a passion for milkshakes.
The tour still has him on probation for last season’s behavior, which likely kept some of his more flamboyant antics in check. That said, he still set aside some time to torpedo a racquet and ask an umpire if he was “stupid.” But grading on a curve, this Open basically marked a vipassana-retreat level of self-restraint. Nick was playing matches to win. His shot selection, largely solid, was guided by a desire to progress through the draw rather than a desire to feel something—anything!—amid workplace ennui.
Crucially, he had a sense of purpose, the thing that eludes him most as soon as he slides out of Jordans and into tennis shoes. The Australian bushfires put him in a somber, deliberate cast of mind. Kyrgios, who is often unwilling to win for himself, thrives when there are other people counting on him—a team format, say, or a country coping with ecological catastrophe. The Open is donating relief for every ace, and Kyrgios, who likes to ace, pledged his own contribution on top of that. Then there was another tragedy that focused his mind: the death of Kobe Bryant, whose jersey he wore into warm-ups. “If anything, it motivated me. If you look at the things he stood for, what he wanted to be remembered by, I felt like, if anything, it helped me tonight,” Kyrgios said at the end of his run.
And the bracket had just the right incentive baked in: Rafael Nadal, with whom he imagines a beef, lying ahead in the fourth round. Taken together, this all amounts to the ideal scenario for a Kyrgios performance. And the result? Respectable. A routine, get-to-the-tiebreak first round against Lorenzo Sonego. A second round in which he beat Gilles Simon at his own grindy game, even finding time to swap Rafa impersonations. A third-round epic against the beast Karen Khachanov, who was actually the bystander during the implosion that put Kyrgios on probation in the first place. And then, in the fourth round, against a favorite opponent, he lost two tight tiebreaks. Falling just short to a sharp Rafa on a slow hard court might be as good as Nick Kyrgios gets. That’s pretty good. And it offers a bit of closure for that nagging rhetorical question: How good could he be? So now I can finally drop that topic, which will spare a lot of innocent people at a lot of social functions.
Maybe there is a little more to be squeezed out of his game—fitness, yes; coaching, not so clear. For all his demons on court, Nick feels out the x’s and o’s quite well, and unless that coach is someone he respects so much as to create a sense of accountability, it might not do much. And I’m not even sure such a person exists within tennis. Look beyond. The real solution, as I’ve long maintained, is to set aside the money that might’ve been spent on a coach and fly a Boston Celtic into his box. Get Kemba Walker lined up in time for Wimbledon and then we’ll talk.
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