Nick Kyrgios insists that public perceptions have changed more than he has, but also acknowledges the challenge of sustaining the type of attitude exhibited over a summer of image rehabilitation that has delivered such unusually positive reviews.
One of the most recent came on Tuesday from another fiery type, the 2001 Wimbledon champion and new Hall-of-Fame inductee, Goran Ivanisevic. Key words: Fighting, behaving.
“Tennis needs Nick. Tennis needs more Nicks,’’ said Ivanisevic, who was jokingly known for having the same type of personality as his Croatian home town: Split.
“It’s funny, they were always telling me I was crazy. I am nothing compared to some guys now. These young guys, they can be pretty difficult. But we need that. We need little bit difference in tennis.
Look how many supporters, followers, Nick has. Is only a question of Nick. I think it was three Gorans, but at least 10 Nicks.
“Depends which one is going to show up. Tennis-wise is unbelievable. He can be No.1 in the future easy.’’
Easy? Hmmm. Unfortunately for Kyrgios, not every tournament is a team event, nor played at home.
With Tuesday’s mixed doubles loss with Amanda Anisimova having ended the Canberran’s Australian Open, his next match will be played at a wintry New York Open from February 10, without the large support crew that has accompanied him down the eastern seaboard these past weeks.
The 24-year-old was appreciative of his conqueror Rafael Nadal’s endorsement – “I like the Kyrgios in this tournament’’ – following their electric four-setter on Rod Laver Arena on Monday night.
Said the world No.1 of a player who will return to the top 20, still seven spots from his peak: “His talent is to be one of the best of the world, without a doubt, with good chances to fight for every tournament.’’
None of which was news to Kyrgios.
“I’ve known that for the last four years. But the trouble for me is being able to actually just produce the same attitude over and over again,’’ he said.
I mean, hopefully I can keep doing it. I’m just taking it day by day, trying to be positive, just bring positive vibes.’’
It will be particularly worthwhile checking back in with Kyrgios in August, in the heat of the US hardcourt swing (see Cincinnati, 2019, Montreal etc), when the relentless travel and time spent away from home starts to become a grind.
Or perhaps in Asia in October (see Shanghai, several times), which has hosted several very public examples of his regrettable unravellings.
Mark Philippoussis suspects the threat of suspension hovering since last year’s Cincinnati meltdown has helped with his focus, although the delineation between ATP Tour matches and grand slams means that no indiscretions at Melbourne Park could have triggered the 16-week ban that remains a threat until the six-month probation period expires at the end of March.
At the same time, Philippoussis, never an overly demonstrative type in his days as a top-10 player and dual major finalist, maintains that “there’s nothing wrong with showing emotion on the court, and talking, and talking to your box, or even smashing a racquet just to get that energy out there”.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. At the end of the day it’s about competing, and he’s competed beautifully.’’
Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine that the histrionics and outbursts will ever disappear completely.
But what remains, as ever, most important is how well Kyrgios manages those emotions, so as not to self-destruct.
Nor should we underestimate the extra perspective and motivation provided by the bushfire situation, and the benefit to Kyrgios embracing and involving himself in something bigger picture than his very privileged self.
The doubters remain, and rightly, but it all feels slightly different this time.
Maybe this truly is a turning point, for we have seen that Kyrgios is passionate. Does care. Will try. Really wants to win. Next time he protests otherwise, we shall know better.
The other key element, of course, is his preparation, for a training warrior such as Alex de Minaur or John Millman he ain’t.
Kyrgios has, at least outwardly, taken great pride in emphasising how much less work he does than most of his rivals – the hope is that he now decides that’s a hollow boast.
If he doesn’t, one suspects that seven straight matches of best-of-five-set tennis will continue to be a few too many, and majors will remain the titles that the more dedicated professionals win.
“I feel like I’ve made progress as a human. A tennis player, I don’t really care about as much,’’ Kyrgios said after leaving Rod Laver Arena, having been in tears and wearing a Kobe Bryant LA Lakers singlet when he walked on to the venue he could avoid no longer.
“But I want to keep going in this direction, for sure.’’
An interesting contrast is with one of his peers and recent sparring partner, Alexander Zverev, the talented German almost two years Kyrgios’ junior, and already the winner of three Masters 1000 titles as well as the prestigious year-end ATP Finals in 2018.
Zverev has never lacked commitment, but has found it hard to produce his best tennis at the majors.
The man who has promised to donate his entire prize money of $4.12 million to the bushfire relief fund should he raise the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup on Sunday has won 12 consecutive sets to reach Wednesday’s quarter-final against 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka.
The winner will play either Nadal or Dominic Thiem.
But on a day when Roger Federer slipped the noose by saving seven match points against Tennys Sandgren, one suspects he and his sore groin will struggle on Thursday to avoid the hangman known as Novak Djokovic.
Another couple of legends, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, have been censured by the tournament for their little banner stunt on Margaret Court Arena, although the push to rename the stadium after Evonne Goolagong Cawley, however unlikely to succeed, is one that has kept the issue in the global spotlight.
It is there that Ash Barty appears to be growing increasingly comfortable, with the first Australian semi-finalist since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 bossing around her best mate and reluctant/unprepared post-match interviewer Casey Dellacqua, joking about the lure of “the beverages” at a charity golf day, and saying she will never really get used to all the fuss.
There will be plenty more if she gets past feisty 14th seed Sofia Kenin on Thursday to become the first home-grown female finalist since Wendy Turnbull in 1980.
That, was a time when Melbourne Park was still a twinkle in the eye of the late visionary John Cain, and Johnny Mac and Martina were making statements with their tennis rather than carrying an Evonne Goolagong Arena sign on Margaret’s Court.
As for Barty, nothing so radical, for the spotlight is not something she has ever sought.
“No, I’d prefer to just be sitting at home just living my quiet little life. I mean, no offence, but not having to chat to you guys every day would be pretty good,’’ smiled the world No.1 after reversing last year’s quarter-final loss to Petra Kvitova.
“I feel like I have nothing to say. I’m talking in circles a little bit.
“It’s incredible. It’s a part of the journey that I hate it and I love it. It’s all the same. It’s all in good fun.’’