Nick Kyrgios and his US Open outburst showed he is now trapped by a fear of failure

·5-min read
Nick Kyrgios and his US Open outburst showed he is now trapped by a fear of failure

The demolition began within moments of match point. Nick Kyrgios started with the racket in his hand, pounding it into the court four times, each smash breaking through the hush that had quickly descended among the midnight crowd. Then he found a second and wrecked it too, almost splitting it in half, its bent frame telling the story of a plan that had gone to pieces. After wanting to give New York a show in his US Open quarter-final against Karen Khachanov, this final act of destruction was the closest Kyrgios got to producing his explosive game. It was far too late.

In some ways, at least Kyrgios has got what he wanted. After four months on the road, his season is over and he will return to Australia and the home he has openly longed for since Wimbledon. He does so, however, after a defeat that will rank as the most painful of his career. Kyrgios was one set up against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final just two months ago but the US Open and how the past week has unfolded arguably represented an even better opportunity to win a grand slam.

Kyrgios could see the finish line, not just in terms of going home, but in winning a grand slam that would have symbolised a deep, cathartic release. “Three more matches potentially and then we never have to play tennis again,” Kyrgios said after beating the defending US Open champion and world No 1 Daniil Medvedev in the fourth round – a victory that saw Kyrgios produce a perfect balance of control, aggression, flair and discipline. He was having fun, enjoying the freedom to express his game, and in that mood he was the leading contender to grasp the chance of an open draw left by Rafael Nadal’s exit.

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Nick Kyrgios broke two rackets after his quarter-final defeat (AFP via Getty Images)
Nick Kyrgios broke two rackets after his quarter-final defeat (AFP via Getty Images)

There will be a first-time grand slam champion crowned in New York this week, but it won’t be Kyrgios. “I honestly feel like s**t,” he said, once the emotions of his five-set defeat to Khachanov had calmed enough to leave only pain behind.

Kyrgios has often said his defeats at the US Open have been the hardest to take. He feels the expectation to not only perform in front of the biggest stadium in tennis and in a city that is loud, brash and loves its stars, but to produce the moments and shots that come so naturally in his game when he is in form.

Above all, though, he feels the expectation to achieve what he believes would make all of this worthwhile, not just for himself but for the close band of his team who journey with him, and whose support acts as his motivation. Over the past weeks, Kyrgios has appeared to have reached the conclusion that everything he and those closest to him endure – his anger, the criticism, the fury he unleashes at his box, the defeats and disappointments, the travelling and time spent away from home – is for nothing unless they win a grand slam, a breakthrough which he believed was close coming into the US Open following his improved form.

It made this defeat even harder to take. After the brilliance of his third and fourth sets against Medvedev and the finest win of his career, Kyrgios was flat against Khachanov, his performance timid and error-strewn when he was faced with being the favourite.

Throughout it all there was an absence of fire, that only came out when he obliterated his racket after shaking hands with his opponent. Although it was deeply uncomfortable, and Kyrgios will likely be punished for one of the most egregious acts of racket abuse you will see, it was only one of a few instances the Arthur Ashe crowd saw the energy that fuels this complicated talent. It was channelled in the wrong way, but the lack of spark that preceded it leaves the defeat as close to inexplicable.

‘I feel like I’ve failed’, Kyrgios said (Getty Images)
‘I feel like I’ve failed’, Kyrgios said (Getty Images)

Kyrgios will return home now to start again. The motivation he has found for his tennis this season will be tested across the long four months between now and the Australian Open. He has admitted he does not care much for the remaining events on tour but believes he can win a grand slam, understanding their importance in how his career will be viewed. The US Open, he admitted, was all or nothing. “I feel like I’ve failed,” he said.

As always with Kyrgios, there are contradictions to a lot of this. But that Kyrgios has reached a position where he believes he can win a grand slam, through reaching the Wimbledon final and beating some of the best players in the world, is in itself a remarkable feat. That it has been salvaged from a spell of depression and mental health issues remains extraordinary. A player who before the start of this year was still being chided and ridiculed for allowing his talent to go to waste has found his purpose and mission.

That should be all that matters but Kyrgios has set himself a goal, and left himself little room for perspective, which presents a different type of turmoil. It became strikingly evident after this quarter-final defeat and it is in the battle between himself and his emotions, in proving people wrong, where Kyrgios now finds himself trapped. Winning a grand slam could be where it ends, but the closer he gets, the harder it becomes, and while the circle continues the only sound that could be heard at 1am in New York was the sound of smashing rackets.