It has been a week of tennis drama, backlit by Ilie Nastase’s sexist rants and Maria Sharapova’s dubious wild cards. With claims and counter-claims flying around the ether, we might have expected Nick Kyrgios – Australia’s serial controversialist – to pop up with a fiery outburst of his own.
Yet since the Australian Open – where he tumbled out with a snarl at the crowd and a jibe at commentator John McEnroe – all has been quiet on the Kyrgios front. His rockiest moment of the last three months came in Miami, when he dealt curtly with a clumsy ball-kid. Even there, he redeemed himself by handing the lad a souvenir towel as he left.
Could we be witnessing the turning point for Kyrgios? It feels as if he is sloughing off the old skin – moochy, rebellious man-boy – and growing up into the tennis titan he always threatened to be. And the more you look at his recent winning streak – which now extends to 12 straight victories against players not named Roger Federer – the more you feel that love might be the answer.
“After the Australian Open, I was in a pretty dark place,” said Kyrgios, while speaking to the Daily Telegraph in Miami last month. “The tournament for me was a disaster. The couple of weeks leading up, I wasn’t in good physical shape. I was in a tough mental space and I wasn’t able to prepare the way I wanted to.
“Then I thought about the position Alja [Tomljanovic, his girlfriend, a fellow professional] was in. I’ve seen her when she was in a sling, just after surgery, not being able to hit and the dark place she was in. It put a bit of perspective into my life. Seeing her more often is helping my headspace. We practise a lot, back in Boca [in Florida], and hopefully we’re going to play mixed doubles at Wimbledon. It would be good to see her back there at a Grand Slam.”
Kyrgios turned 22 on Thursday, and will soon be celebrating his two-year anniversary with Tomljanovic, who was Australia’s No 2 until her shoulder operation. Despite his upcoming commitments in Portugal – where he was meant to be opening his clay-court season on Wednesday – he spent last week training in Charlottesville, Virginia, the venue for the latest second-tier tournament on her comeback trail.
But while Tomljanovic may have been an inspiration, she is not the only one. As he matures, Kyrgios is learning how to cope with his peripatetic life. Which means surrounding himself with as many allies as possible.
People like his Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt and doubles partner, Matt Reid. “After Nick lost early at the Australian Open, he was pretty disappointed,” Hewitt explains. “I got him to come around the other team-mates before our Davis Cup tie, just to see that there were other people who had his back.
“We set up a group chat that we’re all on, because it’s not just about supporting him on Davis Cup weeks. It becomes pretty lonely on the tour.
“Having a guy like Matt Reid as a hitting partner, too – he just makes it easier for Nick to go out and enjoy his tennis and not get quite as homesick.”
Having won his Davis Cup rubber against the Czech Republic in February, Kyrgios delivered a tour de force earlier this month, winning both his singles matches against the United States. The emotional bond between Australia’s captain and No 1 player is developing all the time, and he recently bought a second home in the Bahamas, close to Hewitt’s new coaching base at the Albany Sports Academy. Yet Kyrgios says he is not looking to move away from Australia full time; quite the reverse. It might seem paradoxical that such a captivating athlete should have emerged from Canberra, one of the most boring cities in Christendom. But when this clichéd description is put to him, he rolls his eyes.
“It depends what you like,” he replies. “It’s nice and quiet, very homely. I love to go out and have fun, but I’m not all about partying, so that’s a perfect place for me to get away from tennis with my friends. I think Canberra is the best place in the world.”
Above all, Kyrgios values any time spent with his close-knit clan. “I am very family-orientated,” he explains. And he was devastated last week to learn of the death of his grandfather Christos, whose imminent funeral forced him to withdraw from Estoril.
His relatives understand his need for regular contact. Most tennis junkies would recognise the other Christos – Nick’s brother and constant companion on tour – via his resemblance to WWF wrestler The Rock. But they all take turns to join the carousel: father Giorgos, mother Nill, who was born as a princess in the Malaysian royal family, and sister Hami, a singer and actress.
All this might sound unexpectedly wholesome for a character with a long rap-sheet, which includes tanking matches and sledging Stan Wawrinka about his sex life. But is Kyrgios a berserker through and through? Or is there is a very different man hiding underneath the braggadocio, a vulnerable soul whose flare-ups tend to come when he feels isolated?
As Hewitt puts it, “It’s like a snowball effect. Once someone does something at a young age, it keeps getting brought up all the time - I’ve felt that over the years as well. Nick has certainly done things that he’s not proud of, but it’s all about learning to deal with those stressful sitations.”
The harshest reactions to Kyrgios’s offences often stem from his own compatriots. Despite its image as a nation of surf-dudes, Australia retains a puritanical streak, as demonstrated by the attacks that Kitty Chille– – the chef de mission for the Rio Olympics – levelled at him last year. Never wholly comfortable with authority, Kyrgios responded by withdrawing from the Games – a decision that polarised opinion even further. For the local news websites, hungry for clicks, his turbulent career is the gift that keeps on giving.
“It hasn’t been easy for me,” Kyrgios acknowledges. “I think at times I get treated a bit unfairly, but then so do other athletes in Australia, and I feel like things can change. Everyone likes a winner, so if I keep winning and keep having good results they seem to like me.”
The precedent he cites here is that of Andy Murray, another player who grew up under suffocating media pressure and was accused of surliness in the early days. Since Kyrgios’s breakthrough – which came when he beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014 – Murray has been his closest confidant among the senior players. “He is more like a friend to me, a really caring guy. I FaceTime him every now and again. We talk a lot on WhatsApp. I mean, I don’t want to [he describes an indecent act] but he’s a good bloke. Things changed for Andy when he started winning, so that’s the solution, I think.”
Winning, for Kyrgios, is about “knuckling down and competing hard”. Even so, he is never a man to play the percentages. During his superb sequence over the past two months–– which includes two wins out of two against Novak Djokovic– he has continued to use his outrageous ’tweener.
McEnroe has previously described Kyrgios’s signature stunt as “absolutely stupidity– a bonehead move”.
But is this such a black-and-white argument?
For one thing, he plays the ’tweener so absurdly well that he often ends up winning the point with it. For another, the shot lifts the crowd and causes his own adrenaline to spike, which tends to be bad news for his opponent.
“Nick is probably more talented than me,” says Hewitt.” The shot-making ability is pretty remarkable. Sometimes it comes too easy to him: that’s why we see some of these different shots, because he gets bored out on the court.
“Until you give every single point your best effort, you don’t know how good you potentially can be. And in some ways he was scared of that as well.
“Now he’s in a time and place in his life where he is ready to have a good crack. Seeing Milos [Raonic] make the final of Wimbledon last year would spur Nick on, because to my mind, Nick has a more complete game. He can play on all surfaces but at Queen’s and Wimbledon he will be very competitive.
“Andy and those guys are extremely good but he is in the next group of four or five guys who can win Wimbledon.”
Nick Kyrgios will compete in the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club, June 19-25, with Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka. Tickets: www.aegonchampionships.com