It has been a fairly typical last two months for Nick Kyrgios. The 20-year-old Australian has beaten Roger Federer, played one of the shots of the year with a winning through-the-legs lob against Andy Murray at the French Open and talked about avoiding all tennis for a week, less than a fortnight before Wimbledon, after finding it “difficult to get myself engaged” when losing at Queen’s Club last week.
To cap it all, the world No 29 will start Wimbledon next week without a coach after sacking his fellow Australian Todd Larkham, who had been working closely with him since last summer.
Whether Kyrgios is blasting cannonball serves, hitting outrageous shots, sporting his latest sharp haircut or tattoo or dazzling your eyes with kit as colourful as his on-court language, it is all but impossible to ignore the young man from Canberra, who was singled out this week by John McEnroe as the most likely future champion from his generation.
The American likes Kyrgios’s “belief and intensity” and believes he is a character who can spread the appeal of tennis to a younger audience. “If he takes it seriously and is able to commit himself he is going to be a truly great player,” McEnroe said.
With Kyrgios, nevertheless, you sense that his tennis future might be in the balance. He has all the talent but does he have the passion for the sport? He has had a stunning year since making his breakthrough last summer at Wimbledon, when as the world No 144 he knocked out the then world No 1 Rafael Nadal.
However, he does not much care for tennis. He would much rather have been a professional basketball player. “I love basketball,” a relaxed Kyrgios said as he sat back in a chair outside a tournament players’ lounge.
“I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much. I don’t love it. It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport. It is just crazy how things go.”
He added: “It’s good when you’re out there on a tennis court. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s all you, tactically, physically, mentally. But I just love basketball, I love the sport. I always have. I try when I’m on the road with tennis not to watch too many basketball videos and stuff like that, to keep me focused, but it’s tough.”
Might he have had a career in basketball? “I thought I was going to,” Kyrgios said. “I was trying to get there when I was 14 and every time when I’m playing now I still think I can for some odd reason, even though I’m playing a completely different sport. That’s just the way it is and unfortunately I think my basketball career has come to an end.”
Basketball’s loss is clearly a gain for tennis. With his bold attacking play, youthful tastes in fashion and free-spirited character, Kyrgios has the potential to become one of the sport’s biggest box-office attractions.
Nevertheless, for all his self-assurance on court– some might even call it cockiness – Kyrgios has huge respect for the game’s leading figures. “I admire Federer the most,” he said when asked to name the player he looks up to more than any other.
“Week in, week out, he’s such a great role model on and off the court. He’s always doing things around tournaments, trying to help out, trying to promote it. He’s doing everything. I played an unbelievable match against him [when I beat him] in Madrid. Then he shows up again the next week and wins. He’s so good at just being able to do it week in and week out.”
Kyrgios said he had “a pretty good relationship” with Federer off the court. He also gets on well with Andy Murray – “he’s a guy I feel like I can talk to if I need any help” – and admires Novak Djokovic.
“Novak’s probably the one guy that scares me a little bit,” Kyrgios said. “I don’t think he has a weakness in his game. He’s solid on both wings, serves great, great returns, good athlete. Hopefully I’ll be ready when my name is called to play him.”
And Nadal? “Me and Rafa don’t talk too much,” Kyrgios said. “We probably don’t have the greatest relationship, like me and Roger do. But I’m more than open to having lunch with the guy or something like that.”
Might their lack of any relationship have something to do with Kyrgios’s remarkable victory over Nadal at Wimbledon last year? “I’m not sure. I’m obviously still a bit nervous around those guys. They’ve accomplished so much in the sport. It was only one match. He’s won nine French Opens. Mentally I think he’s the strongest player on tour.”
Last year’s Wimbledon victory over Nadal featured an outrageous through-the-legs winner from the baseline. Kyrgios said he had watched video reruns of the shot “probably about 100 times”. What did he enjoy most, the shot or the look of astonishment on Nadal’s face? “I enjoy looking at the shot. Everything fell into place, the way I was positioned, the luck as well.”
He added: “I practise [those shots] all the time in training, so I thought it was the right shot to play against Rafa. I was wrong-footed. I couldn’t really do anything else so I had to hit it, but I practise them all the time so every time I get a chance to do it, I am probably going to do it.”
While the victory over Nadal catapulted him into the public spotlight, Kyrgios treasures even more the memory of his second-round victory over Richard Gasquet. The Australian came back from two sets down and saved nine match points. On one of them he double-faulted but made a successful Hawk-Eye challenge.
“That was probably my favourite match I’ve ever played,” Kyrgios said. “A lot of things had to fall in place for me to actually get on Centre Court with Rafa, though it was after the Rafa match that everything changed for me, especially back home.”
With their country’s great history in tennis, Australians expect a lot of their players. Thankfully for Kyrgios, he has other highly promising youngsters with whom to share the burden, including 19-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis, 22-year-old Bernard Tomic and 18-year-old Omar Jasika, the US Open boys’ champion. Kyrgios, Kokkinakis and Tomic hang out a lot together.
“We play a lot of PlayStation,” Kyrgios said. “I brought my PlayStation from Australia. We play some basketball as well. You can’t really do too much. Tennis courts, practice, hotel – it’s a pretty bad routine to get into. You can get pretty tired quickly and especially missing home as well. It’s a tough sport.”
Like Kokkinakis, Kyrgios has a Greek background, though he has never visited his father’s homeland. “That is one place I would love to go to,” he said. “But not for tennis – just for a holiday. To eat food and party, I guess.”
Fun clearly figures high on Kyrgios’s list of priorities, which was clear when he was asked what he thought his best quality was. “I think my best quality is my ability to have fun, enjoy the crowd, get interacting with the crowd,” he said.
“Some players out there don’t really interact with the crowd, they’re really serious, but I think it’s part of my personality as well,
“I go out there and I like to entertain. I like to put on a bit of a show.”
Nadal could face world's top three at Wimbledon
Rafael Nadal may have to beat the world’s top three players if he is to win a third Wimbledon title. The Spaniard, champion in 2008 and 2010, was named the No 10 seed for the championships, which begin on Monday.
Nadal is likely to take more interest than most in Friday’s draw, which could see him face Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray in his last three matches. He faced the same situation at the French Open, although he was beaten in the quarter-finals by Djokovic.
The men’s seedings are based on the world rankings, though extra weight is given to grass-court results over the last year. However, the seedings are almost exactly the same as the world rankings: Stan Wawrinka, the French Open champion, is the men’s fourth seed. Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova are the top four women’s seeds.