One really never knows what they’re going to get with Nick Kyrgios. One moment he’s the most promising young player on the tour, the next we wonder if he will even continue playing tennis. He alternates between being a showman and being completely disinterested; many fans and journos seem disposed to like him, but then are often left feeling like they’ve invested unwisely.
This year’s Cincinnati Masters has already been a crazy tournament, particularly on the men’s side, where only two of the men’s Top 10 were even in the tournament by Friday — and then there were none. After David Ferrer showed some vintage fire and grit and took out Dominic Thiem earlier in the day, Nick Kyrgios stunned the late-night Cincy crowd by making rather short work of favorite Rafael Nadal, beating him 6-2, 7-5.
NK was a mess tonight. He already walks like a 70-year-old, was hunched up into 90-year-old territory now. Definitely needs time to heal.
— Tennis Inside Out (@TennisInsideOut) August 3, 2017
We tweeted this out a couple weeks ago, when Kyrgios seemed to be struggling mightily with a long-running shoulder injury. In press after the Rafa victory, NK was asked about his Cincy match against David Goffin, and if he’d considered retiring during what appeared to be a physical struggle.
“Kind of, but, you know, I saw he was in a lot of pain, as well. I was just kind of battling as well. I just kept going.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m doing everything I can. I’m rehabbing every day. I’m getting treatment for it. We have a Tennis Australia physio here and he’s helping me a lot. If I put in performances like I did today, I’m seeing progress. Yeah, it’s good enough to play.”
Clearly it was, as Nick raced out to an immediate two-break lead against Rafa — despite having played a 3-set match against Ivo Karlovic earlier that day. NK served brutally well, and while his FH occasionally seemed to be not hit quite cleanly, the backhand shots looked ridiculously easy. From way back behind the baseline, he’d hoist a big swing with seemingly little effort, almost gently easing explosive winners across the court.
The pro-Rafa crowd on Center Court seemed uncertain how to react to Kyrgios, impressed by the tennis but displaying a definite mix of reactions to the tweener he employed. “I mean, I was just doing it for gags,” Kyrgios explained to press. “I was up 40-Love. I just felt like doing it.” Later, asked about his penchant for tweeners, he said, “I think it’s just a bad habit, to be honest. I do it in practice a lot. Things you do in practice you tend to do in matches.”
Despite just having a lark out there, Kyrgios wasn’t just wandering aimlessly on court and happened to win. Once he got that two-break lead, there was a distinct pattern to his antics. He focused very carefully on holding his serve. On return games, he had fun with it. He knew what he need to do to win, and what he could let go of. That was a change from some previous high-profile matches.
NK is human, despite his bravado, and when he faltered in the second set, and with the crowd quite loudly pro-Rafa now, it seemed the bright start might fade and turn into another victory for the Spaniard. But Kyrgios kept it together, put his head down, and got the win. It was an impressive performance, especially as Nadal was not playing poorly — there were many more errors than we expect from even late-career Rafa, but a fair portion of those seemed to be as a result of what NK was executing on his side of the net.
So what made this match different from others where Kyrgios seems so listless and done with tennis? Apparently, like another infamous bad boy of tennis, Ernests Gulbis, NK gets it up for the big matches on the big courts.
“I think all the young guys play great against those guys. Look at Zverev. He’s killing it at the moment.
“Obviously I think it’s easier to say that for me because you see me tank ridiculous amounts of matches against, like, on back courts and stuff like that and you never see me doing anything silly obviously in a match like this. It’s easy to get up for these matches.
“Little kid playing on center court of Cincinnati against Nadal, that’s the way, you know the best has to come out. You know, the problem for me is trying to bring it on an everyday basis, say center court of Lyon with, like 15 people against Nicolas Kicker earlier this year, I lost. Tonight I’m playing Rafa and I win.
“These matches aren’t the problem. It’s those matches for me.”
Kyrgios talks a lot about finding the “right head space,” and how obviously things like his grandfather’s death have affected his mood for the sport. He acknowledges not being able to close out some big matches, including this one against Rafa, but he defines it as “normal.” And he doesn’t think he’d be that fussed about it if he’d lost after all. “There are worse things in the world,” he says. “Obviously it’s just a tennis match at the end of the day.”
Kyrgios was very calm and matter-of-fact as he described his feelings about his game and the sport as a whole. It all would likely sound perfectly reasonable to the average person who doesn’t enjoy going to work every day, and is more excited about big events than the usual daily grind. But as his fellow countryman Bernie Tomic recently discovered, openly admitting your lack of gusto for the game and “tanking” can earn you loads of fines and dropped sponsorships.
At the end of the match last night, many members of the crowd booed Nick’s win. It’s a common occurrence in the young player’s career, and much as he might shrug off any feelings on the matter, you have to think it affects him more than he lets on. Kyrgios is a strange mix of bravado and sensitivity, of ego and deference, of excitement and boredom — and it’s a good possibility that he’s just as bewildered by people’s expectations or perceptions of him as we are bewildered by his actions on and off-the-court.
Kyrgios plays David Ferrer next, whom he calls “a great competitor.” We’ll see if NK is one, too.