Nick Kyrgios loves basketball. We know that. He has told us many times, even saying he’d rather play it than tennis.
But Kyrgios’ off-court passion is now affecting his career after he blamed an injured knee – sustained playing basketball during his pre-season – as a significant factor in his latest on-court meltdown and capitulation.
Leading two sets to love, Kyrgios, who also had a match point, lost the plot late in the third set and never recovered as Italian Andreas Seppi recorded a gripping 1-6 6-7 (1-7) 6-4 6-2 10-8 second-round triumph at the Australian Open on Wednesday.
In better news, Bernard Tomic and Ashleigh Barty both won their way through to the third round.
Kyrgios, who was in a running verbal battle with his support box throughout the contest, was forthright in his media conference, telling reporters: “I didn’t have the best preparation. Did a couple of things in the off-season that I’m probably not going to do next time.”
When pressed on what he would do differently, he added: “Maybe just not play as much basketball. Actually take my pre-season seriously. It was fun. I love to play [basketball]. Hurt my knee.”
Kyrgios can blame fitness all he likes, but it wasn’t an issue in the early stages as he raced to a two-set lead with swagger.
Everything changed deep in the third set, though, as two code violations – one for a racquet throw that narrowly missed a ballboy – and a Seppi break dramatically shifted momentum on Hisense Arena.
Seppi, who consolidated his break to take the third set, made light work of the fourth, which took just 25 minutes. Kyrgios, still well and truly in the match, looked like he wanted to be anywhere else, behaviour that is more of a pattern than a rarity.
Disgusted with what he was seeing, tennis legend John McEnroe dubbed Kyrgios’ lack of effort as a “black eye for the sport”.
A grandstand finish followed, though, with the fifth set outlandish, gripping and maddening – all at the same time.
Kyrgios lifted his game but not his attitude, despite the urging of a passionate crowd.
Even after holding serve to love in impressive fashion to lead 3-2, the 14th seed trudged around the court as if he was slogging through heavy snow.
He wouldn’t stop shaking his head at breaks, either. When asked by The New Daily after the match what was going through his mind in the final set, he said: “A lot of emotions. You know, you’re close to winning.
“Just a lot of stuff’s going through my head at that stage.”
That much was clear.
While the first four sets were rapid and full of short, powerful points, the quality lifted in the decider.
It was not all Seppi’s way: he gave Kyrgios three break points at 3-4 but managed to escape, but the veteran should have wrapped things up in the 12th game when serving for the match after a crucial break.
But Kyrgios broke back straight away, and showed his bag of tricks in the process, picking an outrageous time to use his ‘tweener shot.
By that stage, you couldn’t turn away, and Seppi, facing match point after showing initial jitters on serve, showed nerves of steel by going for – and making – a daring forehand down the line to stay alive.
He then held serve, broke again after Kyrgios misjudged a fiercely hit return, and, finally, served it out to end an epic.
Kyrgios left the court to boos. “Definitely not the best feeling,” he said afterwards.
Defeat may have some positives for Kyrgios.
In his post-match press conference – in which he aimed fire at McEnroe on multiple occasions – he admitted he needs a coach.
It was a costly realisation, though.
In 2015, Kyrgios came from two sets to love down – and saved a match point – to win a classic against Seppi at Melbourne Park.
Just moments before they stepped on court for the 2017 edition, he told the Italian: “Dude, that is still my favourite match of all time.”
Seppi will have an answer for him next time.
Other Aussies in action
The news was better for Tomic, who beat Dominican Victor Estrella Burgos 7-5 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 7-5, and Barty, who saw off Shelby Rogers 7-5 6-1.
Sam Querrey, seeded 31st, proved too good for 17-year-old Aussie Alex De Minaur, winning 7-6 (7-5) 6-0 6-1, while in the women’s draw, Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Aussie teenager Jaimee Fourlis 6-2 6-1.