Nick Kyrgios, a team player in an individual sport

The talented Australian tennis player has a tendency to talk his way into controversy, but his headstrong opinions often overshadow actions that speak louder than words.

If Nick Kyrgios wasn’t so good at tennis, his polarising comments on and off the court wouldn’t gain nearly as much traction. He has so much natural talent that his wins seem almost effortless, making him popular particularly among young aspiring players and fans. 

He also revels in the limelight, which he uses alternately to entertain and rile the crowds, and is opinionated and far from scared to speak his mind. As a result, more often than not he makes the news for something controversial he’s said.

During the Covid-19 lockdown last year he called Karen Khachanov an “absolute pelican”, Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour “boneheaded” and Boris Becker a “doughnut”. All phrases that make good headlines. The thing is, if you look past his (often humorous, if not always overly polite) words and consider what prompted them, a different picture emerges.

Kyrgios got into it with Khachanov after Mats Wilander questioned if it was right for Andy Murray to take wildcards at the expense of younger players, suggesting that he should bow to his longstanding hip injury and retire. Khachanov felt that telling Wilander to “shut up” was disrespectful, but the mouthy Australian saw it as standing up for “one of mine”. 

His “boneheaded” comment in response to the decision to go ahead with Djokovic’s Adria Tour was in reply to Borna Coric announcing that he had contracted the coronavirus. This after a number of exhibition participants tested positive, having played and partied with zero precautions. Kyrgios’ tweet then quite sweetly read, “Speedy recovery fellas.” 

Becker lashed out at Kyrgios for criticising fellow German Alexander Zverev, who was caught on camera partying maskless in a crowded Monte Carlo venue when he said he would be self-isolating. Kyrgios called out Zverev: “How selfish can you be?” Becker called Kyrgios a “rat”. Kyrgios called Becker a “doughnut”. 

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The Covid-19 pandemic mostly underlies these contentious comments. Kyrgios has been taking the coronavirus seriously, particularly when it comes to his loved ones. More telling than anything he’s said about it, he has not competed for almost a year, opting to #stayhome and give even the US Open and Roland Garros a miss.

He will play competitive tennis for the first time since Acapulco last year at the Great Ocean Road Open. This is one of the four ATP and WTA events making up the Melbourne Summer Series – all the tournaments usually held in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart are being played in Melbourne this year in light of the pandemic – in the run-up to the Australian Open that starts on 8 February. 

Australia has held firm thus far on its strict quarantine requirements for anyone entering the country and officials are making no exceptions for tennis players. Not even those who complained about having to forfeit their promised five hours a day of training after some on their chartered flights tested positive, forcing them into 14 days of “hard quarantine” on arrival. “The rules apply to them as they apply to everybody else,” Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews told broadcaster ABC News. 

When Djokovic sent Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley a list of requests for these players, including a shorter quarantine period and being moved to houses with tennis courts, naturally Kyrgios had something to say. He called Djokovic a “tool”. Former Grand Slam doubles winner and presenter Rennae Stubbs also felt strongly about such requests with two-time Aus Open champion Victoria Azarenka, one of the players in hard quarantine, the voice of reason.

Dollars for aces

Forgoing potentially substantial match earnings last year is not the first time Kyrgios’ actions have spoken louder than words on big issues. When bushfires were raging out of control in his home country at the beginning of last year, he pledged to donate A$200 for every ace he served that summer, kicking off the Australian Open’s Aces for Bushfire Relief initiative and prompting similar pledges from other players. 

Tennis Australia committed to donate A$100 for every ace served at the inaugural ATP Cup that took place shortly before the Grand Slam. Rod Laver auctioned one of his “favourite Dunlop 1969 racquets” and fellow Australian Alex de Minaur offered A$250 an ace, “just because I don’t think I’ll be hitting as many aces as you, mate”. The Rally for Relief event at the Australian Open raised A$4.8 million in a single night.

Polar opposites and occasional point-to-prove rivals, even Rafa Nadal “likes this Nick”.

The other thing about Kyrgios is that he prefers and just fares better in a team environment. He admitted to preferring basketball years ago and will watch a basketball game over a tennis match on television. He plays socially and uses it as cross training. He chose tennis as a 14-year-old simply because he lived in Australia and it was “easier to make it as a tennis player than a basketball player”. 

His big serve helped Australia to the semifinals of last year’s ATP Cup, in which the 24 countries of the highest-ranked ATP players compete against each other in teams of up to five players. 

“I think the way Laver Cup is, the way ATP Cup is going to be, I think that’s what tennis needs moving forward. I think it’s unbelievable, that concept to play in a team, and I think it’s way more exciting for the fans to watch. I think it’s easier to follow a team as well,” said Kyrgios during the event.

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And he and Jack Sock not only kept Team World within a hair’s breadth of victory at the Laver Cup in 2019 – “That’s one of the best 10-point tiebreakers I’ve ever seen a doubles team play,” said team captain John McEnroe at the time – but were particularly memorable for their team spirit on the sidelines.

A reduced 12 teams of four players each are scheduled to compete in the ATP Cup this year, which takes place in Melbourne in the first week of February, concurrent with the Melbourne Summer Series. Kyrgios’ lengthy absence from the tour during the pandemic has seen his ranking slip, so countrymen De Minaur and John Millman take the two singles slots in the Australian team. Last year’s Laver Cup is rescheduled for September this year, still in Boston in the United States.

‘The way tennis should be played’

The difference in Kyrgios’ demeanour on the singles court versus playing in a team has not gone unnoticed in recent years. “I think the camaraderie with the team concept he seems to like and enjoy. Because at the Laver Cup, he just showed it, he didn’t mess around when he was playing,” said Laver.

It does beg the question of whether he’d play more doubles if this format of the game had equal prize money. And if he’ll end up as a regular World Team Tennis league player after his stellar performance, including a winning underhand serve, in his second season for the Washington Kastles in 2019. 

“I love playing for the team and hope next year I can play more,” he said, after helping the Kastles snatch a victory over the Springfield Lasers. “I love team events. It’s the way tennis should be played.” 

Kyrgios is already making headlines as tennis moves down under. And with officials furiously juggling the daily challenges that seem to be going to epitomise the Australia swing this year – and players responding – he will no doubt make more. It’ll be as entertaining as always.

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