Nick Kyrgios: love him or loathe him

 - Alix Ramsay

The Australian is facing Kei Nishikori in Wimbledon. He divides a nation; he divides a sport.

Nick Kyrgios Wimbledon©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT


Spectacularly gifted, an unbelievable shot-maker, a huge presence (in every sense) on and off the court, the Australian world No.18, is a champion in waiting. And yet...

When Kyrgios is fit, focused and engaged, he has the beating of anyone on any stage. There is not a player in the locker room who does not believe that, if all his ducks are lined up in a row, he will win a major championship. The problem is that Kyrgios’s ducks tend to fly off in different directions at the most inopportune of moments and with minimal provocation.

All the good will evaporates?

In Australia, he cops a lot of flak (as those Down Under might say). In the past, he has “tanked” matches when he did not feel like making the effort and that is unforgivable in a country where their sporting heroes are expected to leave everything on the playing field. Let’s face it, Lleyton Hewitt could be a prickly character who, at times, made it difficult to love him but he would bleed rather than give in. For that, he was the true Aussie hero. When he did bleed, he bled green and gold.

But Kyrgios? Not so much. There are times when his country gets behind him, times when he is working hard and playing well. The Aussies know a potential champion when they see one. But then he will Tweet something inappropriate or do something outrageous and all the good will evaporates.

Take Queen’s Club a couple of weeks ago. There he was, playing well on a surface that could have been made for him and his blistering serve. He said he was feeling physically fit and that he was in a good place mentally. The result: he was playing a blinder. Only Marin Cilic, the eventual champion, could stop him. But in that semifinal against Cilic, Kyrgios reverted to type and, caught on camera imitating a “lewd act” with a water bottle, he was fined €15,000 by the ATP. Back home in Australia, his popularity rating fell through the floor. Again.

Kyrgios is always true to himself

In 2016, the ATP suspended Kyrgios after he had “been found to have committed the player major offense ‘Conduct Contrary to the Integrity of the Game’”. He was playing – and we use the term loosely – in Shanghai and simply could not be bothered as he lost to Mischa Zverev. The ban was to last for eight tournament weeks but would be reduced if he sought psychological help. There went his popularity rating again.

The lovely people of Tennis Australia must wake up every morning and pick up their phones in fear and trepidation. What has Nick done now? Indeed, so prodigious is his Twitter output, and so random, that Kyrgios’s own team keep a close check on it and have been known to delete some offerings, just in case. Nick could give Donald Trump a run for his money on that front.

And yet…

Throughout all of this, Kyrgios is always true to himself. What you see is what you get. He is unashamedly Nick, be it Good Nick or Bad Nick.

The litmus test for any player is how he is regarded by his peers – and no one calls him out from the locker room. Yes, his fellow players will sigh when he does something daft but no one rips into him for his behaviour. Those who travel and work with him must see the real Nick and that man is clearly not a bad man.

Even at Wimbledon this year, where is playing well and is still in his happy place (always an ominous sign for his rivals), he is not dodging controversy. He whistled past Robin Haase in straight sets in the second round. It was an untroubled afternoon, you would think. Except that

he took a telling off for swearing and got into a bit of back and forth with the umpire, James Keothavong, over why he was being reprimanded.

One of the best things to happen to tennis in years.

Also in that match he won one point with two, successive “tweeners” and had Keothavong down from the chair to demonstrate exactly what he was doing wrong when he was getting called for foot faults. There is never a dull moment with Nick.

And that is what the stuffier of the stuffed shirts in tennis are missing with our man: whatever he does, he makes news. As the authorities try desperately to attract a younger audience, they are looking in all the wrong places.

Change the format of the game? No. Just because Millennials have the attention span of a goldfish does not mean that tennis is inherently dull. Shorten the length of sets? No. If television is having problems selling two hours of tennis to its audience, don’t let them sell one hour of boredom to the viewing public. Instead, find and promote the characters and the personalities and allow them to express themselves on court. That will make for two hours of sparkling television.

Kyrgios plays Kei Nishikori next in SW19. If he implodes against the fast and unflappable Japanese, goes down in five sweary, angry sets, he will make front and back page news. If he wins, he will make front and back page news, too, because he will be in the fourth round and looking good for a run deep into the second week. One way or the other, Nick makes headlines and as tennis needs to learn: there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Love him or loathe him, Nick Kyrgios is one of the best things to happen to tennis in years.