US Open: Is Nick Kyrgios too bad to be good?

Paul Newman speaks to John McEnroe and others, to find out if the Australian's mischief means he can never reach his potential

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The Independent Online

If Nick Kyrgios had any doubts as to how the wider tennis world might react to his recent misdemeanours they have probably been removed by his experiences at two public events here in the build-up to next week’s US Open. The 20-year-old’s comments to Stan Wawrinka in Montreal a fortnight ago, when he claimed that his fellow Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis had “banged” the world No 5’s girlfriend, have been widely condemned, especially by his peers.

On the very day that the Association of Tennis Professionals announced further sanctions against Kyrgios, including a possible suspension, his Nike sponsors still included him in a promotional event alongside the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. Eugenie Bouchard, another big name on parade, tweeted that her highlight had been Sampras telling Kyrgios to “behave, young man”.

Two days later the New York Post suggested that Nadal declined to play doubles with Kyrgios at a charity event organised by the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. Nadal, who had previously criticised Kyrgios’ comments to Wawrinka, was asked about the Australian again, only for McEnroe to step in to answer for him.

The newspaper reported that Kyrgios said the incident was now over, adding: “It’s part of the journey. I don’t think anyone was perfect when they were 20. It wasn’t the best thing. But I learned from that and keep maturing every day.”

Patrick McEnroe, who like his brother John will be part of the ESPN commentary team here next week, says that Kyrgios’s fellow professionals had already tired of his behaviour before Montreal. Repeatedly fined for his bad language and run-ins with officialdom, Kyrgios was at the centre of controversy at Wimbledon when he appeared to make little effort during a game against Richard Gasquet.

“There was already a backlash,” McEnroe says. “There’s already players that are basically fed up with him, fed up with his act. If you want to say this took it to another level in that department, there’s absolutely no doubt that it did. Again, there’s some players that don’t care about that, but that’s a difficult way to live.

“If you’re not great, you’re going to be out in a hurry. He’s got some serious fence-mending to do if he wants to do it, if he cares. Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he’ll clean up his act a little bit and still do his own things, which certainly other great players have done.”

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Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have a frank exchange of views at Wimbledon in 1980 (Getty)

If McEnroe’s brother John might be expected to spot a tennis brat when he sees one, the former Wimbledon champion’s example nevertheless shows it is possible to move from persona non grata to éminence grise. However, being a great champion – at 20 McEnroe had already won his first Grand Slam title – ensured that critics allowed him more leeway than Kyrgios might be given. The world No 37 has yet to win any title at tour level.

McEnroe has plenty of sympathy for Kyrgios – who meets Andy Murray in the first round here – and sees some similarities with his own days as a rabble-rouser. “The pressure’s getting to him,” McEnroe says. “As a 20-year-old kid, I did my share of dumb things, inappropriate things at times. The good part is I had people that I looked at. [Jimmy] Connors did some crazy things, too, but he was a hell of a competitor and he made me go out there and give more effort.”

He adds with a laugh: “You’re asking the wrong guy about keeping it together on a tennis court, clearly.” However McEnroe stresses that as a one-on-one sport, compared with a team event, tennis offers particular challenges. “You’re the only person out there,” he says. “The focus is on you and one other person. It’s so much more magnified and difficult to keep things together at all times.”

McEnroe says his sledging with Connors never reached the level of Kyrgios’ remarks to Wawrinka, but recalled an episode at the French Open. “[Connors] was telling me I was more immature than his kid, a baby,” McEnroe says. “The words he was using weren’t as nice as those to describe what he was seeing in me at that particular time. And I thought he was a pompous ass.”

McEnroe also believes tennis is not an upper-class sport where “you have to wear long pants and behave a certain way” and regrets today’s general lack of a personal edge between players.

“Some of that’s important and good for the game,” McEnroe says. “There were times when Jimmy, myself and others went too far, like Kyrgios did, but I think that’s an entertaining and an important part of a one-on-one sport. I’m not saying they should go out and start cursing each other, but this is an extremely mental game. This isn’t just about how you hit a forehand. It’s about how you can handle adversity under pressure.”

McEnroe says that Kyrgios could learn from players like Nadal, “one of the all-time class acts”. He explains: “He can’t afford to waste as much energy as he’s wasting with these sort of off-court comments that he’s making that just cause more problems for him.

“As far as what I personally hope, I feel that he could be a tremendous positive for the game. He’s tremendously talented. He’s charismatic. He’s got a look that’s different. He brings something to the table. But he’s not heading in the right direction now. I think he can turn it around and I’d like to see him turn it around because I think we need that spark in tennis. When he smoothes out the edges, he could be a tremendous positive for the game and a top-five player.”

He adds: “Some people wouldn’t think the advice I would give him would be good. Hopefully he’ll get some better advice. I’d be happy to give him some and be supportive. I’d like to be one of those guys that is going to support this guy through this.”

Murray, who has regularly helped Kyrgios since his arrival on the tour, insists the Australian is “not all bad” and adds: “He’s a young guy growing up in the spotlight. There’s been a lot of negativity towards him over the last few months. That isn’t easy to deal with. I think that it’s important that he obviously learns from the mistake, but [also that] everyone just gives him a little bit of a break.”

Steve Healy, the president of Tennis Australia, expresses support for Kyrgios without condoning his actions. “Our high-performance team continues to work closely with Nick and his management on a range of actions to help him achieve immediate and long-term improvements in his demeanour and well-being,” he says. “These recent events have impacted Nick significantly. He has demonstrated remorse and accepted the urgent need for change.”

Kyrgios has yet to replace Todd Larkham, his coach, following their split just before Wimbledon. It was around that time that Kyrgios told The Independent in an interview: “I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much.” He also admitted after losing to Wawrinka at Queen’s Club: “I almost found it difficult to get myself engaged. I didn’t want to be there.”

Next week should show his current state of mind, which will be of particular concern to Wally Masur, his Davis Cup captain, ahead of Australia’s semi-final against Britain in three weeks’ time. A passionate crowd in Glasgow is unlikely to give Kyrgios an easy ride.

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