There have been countless shots at this year’s Australian Open that seem to stretch beyond the realms of human physicality. There’s the sight of Rafael Nadal, aged 35, with tendons stitched back together like a puzzle, skidding at full pelt to claw a drop shot over the net. There’s been Gael Monfils, only a few months younger, hurling himself against the hard courts in Melbourne as though trying to chase down time itself. The examples of players pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion, sickness or, in some cases, quite literally shedding blood in pursuit of victory, have been endless. It is the nature of a grand slam and of sport itself, modern and gladiatorial: to sacrifice more than anyone else; to prevail or surrender.
And yet the shot that drew the wildest reaction, or at least provoked the clearest sense of joy, was struck way back in the relative freedom of the first round. Leading Britain’s Liam Broady by a set and a break, Nick Kyrgios’s eyes lit up in a way that you could almost see the thought flash through his mind. And so, as a top-spin forehand arced towards his nether regions at around 70mph, the Australian sprung onto his toes and attempted a tweener with complete nonchalance. For all its audacity, and disdain for the circumstances, it was hardly ineffective. A little confounded, Broady’s return sat up invitingly and Kyrgios then annihilated a forehand with such fury it threatened to leave John Cain Arena in a state of mass whiplash.
It was the sort of moment that has come to epitomise Kyrgios’s career: a mercurial talent, a fervent entertainer, and a rebel against all, not excluding himself. But then, if that’s become par for the course, this Australian Open fortnight has still managed to achieve a new level of peak Kyrgios melodrama. Before the tournament had even got underway, he made the surprising heel-turn from Novak Djokovic’s arch-critic to attacking the Australian government’s “mistreatment” of the world No 1. And when it came to Kyrgios’s continued disaffection with tennis, any suggestions of a renewed love affair were met with a volley of no less certain emphasis. “I can’t wait ’til the Aussie summer is over,” he said in the build-up to the tournament. “The party after Melbourne is gonna be f****** nuts. I’ll rent a house and just go f***** nuts.”
There is a significant corner of tennis fans – and rivals – who resent Kyrgios’s antics; the sideshow, the contradictions; and the caricature. But the extended highlights of his second-round match against Daniil Medvedev, the world No 2, have already amassed 875,000 views on YouTube. No other match at the tournament has come close to garnering the same level of interest – Nadal’s third-round win against Karen Khachanov is currently second on 550,000 views. The 26-year-old, who continues to stoke the possibility of retirement, is tennis’s most divisive, frustrating and fascinating figure all at once. It may come at the cost of tradition or put spectacle above sport, but few can reasonably claim it isn’t drawing more eyes to the court.
There is a defined portrait of what a modern athlete is supposed to be. It’s that relentlessness of Nadal, the sort of burning desire that utterly consumes a person. There is not a point wasted, a training session coasted through, or a weakness that can’t be ironed out. In the face of that, Kyrgios is more like a renegade, revolting against the idea of what constitutes success and failure. On the one hand, he could squeeze so much more out of his extraordinary talent. And yet, that doesn’t necessitate that he has to be unfulfilled as a result. There is, of course, still the fierce ambition that underlines every athlete but only up to a point where it doesn’t come as a detriment to the whole. It’s a constant balancing act, one that frequently leads to Krygios being labelled as “tortured” when his temper boils over and tantrums ensue, but this week he seems to have stumbled into a volatile, absorbing, and wonderfully fitting middle ground.
Kyrgios has described his run to the final of the men’s doubles, alongside childhood friend Thanasi Kokkinakis, as the most fun he’s ever had on a tennis court. It’s never been easier to believe him. The “Special Ks” unexpected campaign, prompted by their early exits from the singles, has successfully whirled through the full kaleidoscope of Kyrgios’s emotional roulette wheel. He has encouraged and conducted the raucous partisan crowds and then berated them for distracting him. “Can you be quiet while I serve, you numbnut,” he told one delighted spectator. He’s been called an “absolute k*** with the maturity of a 10-year-old” by one beaten opponent and been childishly confronted by another’s coach in the locker room. He’s smashed the frame of his racquet to smithereens, reduced a child to tears with an errant shot, and shouted: “I want to win this f****** thing!” with the full might of his lungs.
Beyond that, there’s been the not too insignificant aspect of the actual tennis. After all, it’s sometimes easy for that to get lost in the theatre of it all, to sit there with bated breath waiting for the inevitable eruption, but there has been far more that has dazzled than beguiled; a wealth of breathtaking shots for each instance of sporting skulduggery. Kyrgios is an exceptional player capable of producing something from nothing at any given second. It is what makes him so electric to watch and gives gravity to the accompanying histrionics.
At the root of it all, Kyrgios’s tennis is a reflection of his character, buffeting between hot and cold, trapped in the storm of his mind, that violent microcosm of what it takes to be a modern sportsman. When the emotions spill over, some consider his flaws to be irredeemable. But on the contrary, the same shortcomings that prevent him from breaking into the elite are what make him such a maverick law unto himself. It’s often a circus, sometimes a waste, but never to be missed. And most importantly, you get the sense, for all he might have otherwise achieved, that’s exactly how Kyrgios likes it.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies