Wimbledon 2019: How do you solve a problem like Nick Kyrgios? Maybe we don’t have to

In a sport where most of its practitioners put the shutters up, spout platitudes and dare you to diagnose them, Kyrgios puts everything on the surface

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Friday 05 July 2019 13:56
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Wimbledon Championships in numbers

My favourite Nick Kyrgios shot? It’s not the tweener. It’s not that mosquito bite of a drop shot, lethally subtle and administered before you had the faintest idea what was happening. It’s not the underarm serve, or the overarm serve. It’s not even the lush crosscourt forehand, delivered with a delicious whip of the wrists and enough spin to start a malicious rumour. But they’re all valid choices. None of them is a wrong answer.

Personally, though, my favourite Kyrgios stroke is when the ball sits up off the court just a little on the forehand side, and as he rotates his shoulders and winds back his racquet to its full extension, you realise the next shot is going to be hit so abominably hard you’re going to struggle to track the flight of the ball afterwards. It could crash into the net halfway up. It could fly into the fourth row of seats. Or it could disappear with the velocity of a photon and reappear four nanoseconds later on the right sideline for an emphatic, disdainful winner. Five years after his breakthrough year, the instant before Kyrgios winds up his all-or-nothing forehand is still, I would posit, the most thrilling moment in tennis.

Kyrgios’s four-set defeat to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon on Thursday was full of such moments: moments where, for everything you think you’ve learned about tennis or sport or even Kyrgios himself, you still couldn’t quite predict how things would play out. Perhaps he would smoke a 143mph second serve. Perhaps he would smash the ball straight at his opponent. Perhaps he would goad the chair umpire as a man on a power trip. (Naturally, he ended up doing all three.) In a business increasingly trending towards the known, the bite-size, the commodifiable, Kyrgios in a way exemplifies its antithesis: the pure caprice and infinite complexity of the live high-wire performer.

You can criticise Kyrgios – many enthusiastically do, and often with justification – but he defies every attempt to categorise or caricature him. This is the selfish brat who, according to an Australian charity, spent years secretly inviting children with cancer to have a hit with him on the practice court. The surly prima donna who cracks really quite good jokes in press conferences. The wasted talent who has accumulated £5.8 million in career prize money and just served up one of the most entertaining Grand Slam matches of the year.

Even a simple kind of hero worship is tough to maintain, given his frequent rudeness on and off the court, and the occasional comment that crosses the line from illicit entertainment to pure dickishness (“Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend” a few years ago was a low, albeit one he apologised for). You can’t purely like Nick Kyrgios. You can’t purely dislike Nick Kyrgios (although plenty of people try, and they’re wrong). He’s nobody’s idea of a role model, and a very poor sort of pariah. So what’s to be done with him?

Perhaps nothing. Perhaps one of the reasons Kyrgios provides such irresistible grist for vague, chin-strokey columns like this one is that no real emotional excavation is required here. In a sport where most of its practitioners put the shutters up, spout platitudes and dare you to diagnose them, Kyrgios puts everything on the surface: the scars and the scabs, the joy and the resentment and the frustration and the longing. And he doesn’t much care what you’ll make of it, either.

Perhaps the best way of interpreting Kyrgios is as a sort of performance artist: tennis’s answer to Kanye West or Marina Abramovic, a dangerous space where you’re never quite sure where the artist ends and the art starts. Whether they’re doing what they doing on purpose, or simply because it happened to feel good at the time, or whether this is even a meaningful question to be asking. Why did Kyrgios tell reporters that he had a new coach back in October, and then laugh at all the news organisations that reported his comments as fact the next day? In a culture where everything has to mean something – be it a quote, or a tweet, or a look – perhaps the most subversive act is one that means nothing at all.

The tennis itself offers few clues. One of the maddening joys of sport is the instinctive process of extrapolation we apply to young players: this player achieved *x* at age *y*, and so we can safely predict that by age *z*, they could achieve *x2-4ax-b2*, where *a* is their dicky knee and *b* their propensity for a night out. An obsession with the next big thing underpins virtually all sports, and many other fields besides. But it’s hard to argue that Kyrgios is a materially different or even very much improved player from the one who burst so spectacularly onto the scene in 2014. This is all there is. It was all there, on display, from the very start.

In a more enlightened sphere of public debate, we could have a serious, grown-up chat about the sacrifices this sport demands of its young. About its duty of care to the boys and girls it flogs into the ground for 11 months a year, trapped on a brutal, relentless treadmill of overnight flights, nondescript hotel rooms and ranking points. Kyrgios often talks about how he’s “sick of tennis”, and for some reason everyone always seems to conclude that it’s Kyrgios who has the problem. What if it’s tennis?

“Without really loving this game that much, it is difficult to achieve important things,” Nadal warned him after Thursday’s game. Kyrgios had his own response to that. “At the end of the day, it’s tennis, man,” he said. “Is it really that important?” And in those two statements are encapsulated perhaps the fundamental dichotomy of sport. How seriously should we be taking all this? How much of ourselves should we expend on this business of winning and losing and balls and points? What does it mean to truly achieve?

Kyrgios certainly doesn’t need me or you or anyone else to tell him his purpose. “Nick wants to be master of his destiny,” said Sebastian Grosjean, who served as Kyrgios’s only (real) coach for a short period a couple of years ago. And perhaps ultimately, the greatest triumph in sport is the power to define it on your own terms. As for the rest of us: well, even if he never wins another Grand Slam match, even if he never wins a thing in his life, Kyrgios will go down as one of the best-remembered players of his generation. Truly, what could be more important than that?

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