Nick Kyrgios can flip a soft backhand crosscourt winner past an opponent as deftly as he can slap a chair umpire’s face with a foul-mouth verbal volley. The 25-year-old Australian, who turned pro seven years ago, stirs interest and controversy on and off the court. Considered to be one of the game’s rising stars, World No. 40 Kyrgios is one of only three players to notch victories against tennis’ big three – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – in first-time matchups.
He reached the 2014 Wimbledon quarterfinals, the 2015 Australian Open and the 2020 Australian fourth round, losing to Rafael Nadal in four sets. He achieved his highest ranking – No. 13 – in October 2016. So, the question lingers: can he stay focused and in control of his emotions long enough to win a major title? His demeanor and attitude loom as major stumbling blocks.
Too often, Kyrgios has been accused by the media, chair umpires and fellow pros of ‘tanking’ matches (deliberately losing points), verbal abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct. Even John (‘You cannot be serious!’) McEnroe once described him as ‘a volatile sort who repeatedly has gotten in trouble for on-court actions.” Still, McEnroe, who had his share of expletive-filled moments with chair umpires and players during his pro career, described Kyrgios as “the most talented player I’ve seen in the last ten years …”
His rap sheet for ‘bad boy’ behavior is extensive and damaging. In 2016, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) suspended him for eight weeks and fined him $25,000 for tanking his match and insulting fans during the Shanghai Masters. Three years later, he was fined $113,000 and received a 16-week suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct at two events: 2019 Italian Open (throwing a chair) and 2019 Western & Southern Open (spitting at chair umpire and leaving the court to smash two rackets). After an investigation, the ATP decided instead to put Kyrgios on probation for six months with the understanding that the fines and suspension would become effective if Kyrgios committed similar offenses. The agreement also required Kyrgios to continue to receive assistance from a mental skills coach during tournaments and additional help from a specialist in behavior management.
Kyrgios began tournament play this year at the Australian Open with greater concentration and focus. He beat Karen Khachanov 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (8) in the third round but loss to Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), in the fourth round. “When he is playing like today, with this positive attitude, he gives a lot of positive things to our sport,” Nadal said. “I encourage him to keep working like this because he is one of the highest talents we have on our tour. I like the Nick Kyrgios during this whole tournament.” Kyrgios ended tournament play in late February in Acapulco, Mexico where he was booed soundly after retiring with a wrist injury, trailing Ugo Humbert 6-3, 0-0 in the first round.
Except for exhibitions, Kyrgios and the rest of the ATP players were shut-down in March by Covid-19, a highly contagious virus that has infected more than 10 million people and killed more than a half million in the last five months. Kyrios pointedly criticized several of the game’s top pros for participating in an exhibition in the Balkans where recommended health protocols (social distancing, wearing masks, etc.) were not observed. He condemned World No 1 Novak Djokovic for organizing that event. Several pros, including Djokovic, No. 17 Dimitrov tested positive for the virus. Djokovic’s coach, former pro Goran Ivanisevic, also tested positive. “That’s what happens when you disregard all protocols,” Kyrgios said on social media. “THIS IS NOT A JOKE!”
Kyrgios chastised No. 7 Alexander Zverev, of Germany, for partying in a bar after pledging to self-isolate after playing in Djokovic’s event. Zverev tested negative for the virus. “How selfish can you be,” Kyrios wrote on Instagram. He also exchanged unpleasantries with No. 3 Dominic Thiem and former pro Boris Becker. Responding to Thiem’s charge that Kyrgios had made many mistakes and shouldn’t criticize others, Kyrgios countered, “None of you have the intellectual level to even understand where I’m coming from.” In reference to Becker’s description of Kyrgios as a ‘rat,’ Kyrgios said, “Can hit a volley, obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed though.”
Kyrgios has been described by several tennis coaches and analysts as a rare, mercurial talent, who’s volatility might impede his path to greatness. Paul Annacone, Roger Federer’s former coach, once said, “I think Nick is the most talented player since Roger jumped on the scene.” He well might be, but something is missing. So, the question lingers still: Will he ever have what it takes to win a major title?