Nick Kyrgios is not interested in being mentored by John McEnroe, or a verbal rally with his latest critic, Alexander Zverev. He’s just moving forward his way.
“I feel like I’m just trying to spread a lot of positive vibes around,’’ Kyrgios said on Saturday, fittingly, given that his efforts for the bushfire relief cause has almost seen him rechristened as St Nick.
Which is not why he initiated the wildly-successful fundraising efforts, as Kyrgios has repeatedly – and convincingly – stressed.
Yet although courting public approval has never been his thing, nor is there any question that the side Kyrgios has shown over the past few weeks has helped to endear him to many who had considered the combustible 24-year-old a lost cause.
Asked whether he felt the Australian crowd was warming to him, Kyrgios conceded that maybe that was true.
“Every time I play here, I’m well-supported. All my practices are pretty full. I think people are excited to see me,’’ said Australia’s top-seed man, at No.23.
I guess with everything going on, the other stuff outside tennis, maybe that’s more what they support rather than my tennis itself. Everything I’m doing is just because I care, so …’’
The Saturday before a grand slam is high-traffic day, not just on the practice courts, but in the media centre. Kyrgios was the only invitee to the main interview room who was not a current or former top-tenner but, well beyond Australian shores, the interest in Kyrgios can never be judged by the number beside his name.
He said he had been practising with his Davis Cup teammate Jordan Thompson, breakfasting with the injured Alex De Minaur, and watching with approval the likes of big Australian improver Chris O’Connell and surprise qualifier Max Purcell.
But the proud Canberran admitted it had been difficult to switch off from the disaster afflicting the nation and focus on fully onto the grand slam tournament ahead.
“I guess my mind is still not completely on the tennis side of things,” he admitted.
“Obviously with what’s going on, still it’s tough. I mean, I’m preparing as best I can. I feel like I’m doing everything I can to get the best out of my performance at the moment.’’
The first will be on Tuesday against Italy’s world No.52 Lorenzo Sonego, whom Kyrgios beat in Cincinnati last year before the meltdown for which he remains on probation.
Having lived in Melbourne for two years in his teens, it is a place of which he says also feels comfortable, familiar, “at home.’’
After an emotional few weeks, and a tough year in which he “mentally went through the wars” this will be his seventh Australian Open. A 2015 quarter-final remains his personal best.
Feels like I’ve been playing here since I was about 12. I’m not going to take it for granted. I’m really enjoying myself. Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun.’’
Interviews, not so much, although a question about McEnroe’s long-standing offer to work with him did draw a smile. “I think me and Mac, we’ll just stick to having some beers together. That’s about it.’’
On Zverev, who suggested Kyrgios would struggle in five-setters and that many other young players on the tour – including De Minaur – are “right now, no offence, just better than him”, Kyrgios was sanguine.
“With everything going on, that’s the least of my worries. He’s a great player. I’m not quite sure where those comments come from.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean them in a bad way. But if he did, then I’m sorry for whatever I’ve done to you.’’
Nor did Kyrgios have any argument about De Minaur’s current superiority, reiterating that he was “heartbroken” that an abdominal tear would sideline his hard-working young friend.
“He’s our best player at the moment. He’s set such a good example for us. He’s a great role model. He’s probably doing things that I wasn’t when I was No.1 He works really hard. He does the right things.’’
Kyrgios was saying them, his potential fourth-round opponent, top seed Rafael Nadal, having earlier been asked what improvements he may have seen in the Australian’s game over the past 12 months.
“I don’t know. I am not focused on one particular player in terms of his personal improvements, no?’’ Nadal said.
“Everybody knows who is Kyrgios. Everybody knows how big is his talent, how good he is when he wants to play at his best, when he’s able to play at his best.
“His chances are always there. He is one of these players that have chances in every tournament that he plays.’’
Air quality (predictably) and Kim Clijsters’ comeback (less so, but Serge from Belgium was remarkably persistent), were staple afternoon subjects, with both Federer and Nadal referencing the less stringent IOC policy to justify the tournament’s new policy on air quality to deal with the smoke and haze.
Both superstar were among those whose last two questions in English were allocated to young guest interviewers, whose queries included whether any of the Federer children listen to dad’s coaching advice and what Rafa eats for breakfast.
All of which ate into the tennis-related enquiries, with the linguistic gymnast Federer under more time pressure than most.
The fact that none of the handful of queries able to be squeezed in by the adults in the room was match or preparation-related prompted the bemused Swiss to announce: “And I’m playing Steve Johnson, by the way, for those who care. I don’t know. I figured that’s why I’m in Australia, but that’s OK.’’
Mercifully, the moderator relented, and the Johnson question was allowed. “I’m not in the mood now,’’ joked Federer, before proceeding to chat about his own lack of recent match practice compared with the American, who had spent his own Saturday winning the Challenger title in Bendigo.
Melbourne Park is where is all begins on Monday. And for the record, Nadal’s morning meal, like so many of his opponents, will be toast.
Linda Pearce has covered more than 50 grand slam tournaments, including 31 Australian Opens, plus Davis Cup finals and Olympic Games. She will be heading The New Daily’s Australian Open coverage