The Electric, Infuriating Nick Kyrgios

The New York Times Magazine – U.S. Open Special

The Electric, Infuriating Nick Kyrgios

Credit The New York Times Magazine

The 21-year-old Australian tennis phenom might be the most entertaining tennis player since John McEnroe.
Too bad he’d rather be playing basketball.

It was just before noon on a swampy July morning when Nick Kyrgios came walking through the parking lot of the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., on his way to practice. He wore black shorts and a black basketball jersey, and his haircut straddled the line between a faux-hawk and a fade; a racket bag was slung over his shoulders, and his eyes were fixed on two smartphones, one in each hand. Kyrgios, a 21-year-old Australian of Greek and Malaysian descent — and quite possibly the most gifted tennis player to come along since Roger Federer — was accompanied by an improbable crew: a 13-year-old from Philadelphia named Tauheed Browning and a 14-year-old from Maryland named Langston Williams, two promising juniors who were training at the academy. They had bonded with Kyrgios over a shared infatuation with Pokémon GO, the blockbuster mobile game, and the three were apparently now inseparable. They had gone to the movies and the mall together.

They were playing the game, laughing and talking excitedly, as they arrived at the practice court. Kyrgios, who recently reached a career-high ranking of No. 16 in the world, took a seat, put down the phones, opened his bag and pulled out a racket. “It’s important to find a balance between Pokémon and training,” he said, with only the faintest hint of sarcasm.

Browning eyed the racket for a moment, then asked, “What strings do you use?” Kyrgios said they were supplied by his racket manufacturer, Yonex. So what did he do when all of his strings broke? “Then I don’t practice till I get to the next tournament,” Kyrgios replied. I laughed, but Browning seemed to take this answer seriously, and Kyrgios gave no indication that he was joking. Maybe he wasn’t. When I asked Kyrgios what size racket head he used, he shrugged and said, “No idea.”

His girlfriend, a Croatian-born player named Ajla Tomljanovic, was out on the court, hitting with her father; the family dog ran between them, furiously trying to intercept the ball. Tomljanovic, who is two years older than Kyrgios and applied for Australian citizenship last year, didn’t appear to mind sharing her boyfriend’s attention with Browning, Williams and Pokémon — although later in the day, at a photo shoot in West Palm Beach, she expressed some mild exasperation when Kyrgios, summoned to the wardrobe room, implored her to take over his game. “I’m not playing Pokémon with your 7-year-old friend,” she said. Kyrgios quickly corrected her, albeit incorrectly: “He’s 10, not 7.”

Kyrgios would be leaving the next day for Toronto, to play in his first tournament since Wimbledon. He had an eventful Wimbledon this year. On the plus side, he won three tough matches and left fans and commentators swooning over his flashy play — particularly a between-the-legs lob against his first-round opponent, the crafty veteran Radek Stepanek, which might have been the shot of the fortnight. With his bullying serve, haymaker forehand and knack for carnivalesque shots, Kyrgios is wildly entertaining to watch. Pretty much everyone around the game agrees that he has the talent to reach No. 1 and win a fistful of majors.
Kyrgios during his breakthrough Wimbledon match against Rafael Nadal on July 1, 2014. Credit Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

But Kyrgios is as tempestuous as he is precocious, and his strong play at Wimbledon was overshadowed by his occasionally foul language, the invective that he hurled at his entourage and, above all, the ignominious way that he exited the tournament. In his fourth-round match, he faced Andy Murray, the eventual champion, on Centre Court. Two years earlier, on the same court, Kyrgios upset Rafael Nadal, then ranked No. 1, in a fourth-round match, a victory that signaled his emergence as a rising star; doing the same to Murray would have cemented his status as the next big star of men’s tennis. But after dropping a tight first set, Kyrgios gave up. He didn’t entirely stop trying, but it was obvious that he just wanted to be on the next flight out of Heathrow. “This is Wimbledon!” John McEnroe fumed. “How much better a chance are you going to get to play a match and step up?” That was bad enough; it didn’t help when he later admitted that he had spent the morning playing video games.

In his postmatch press conference, Kyrgios was somber and uncharacteristically self-critical. “I think when things get tough, I’m just a little bit soft,” he said. Soon enough, though, he was back to his normal pugnacious self. Kyrgios is notorious for his Twitter spats, and when he saw a series of caustic tweets from the British media figure Piers Morgan — calling him, among other things, a “petulant little brat” — Kyrgios couldn’t let the insults go unanswered. (“EAD,” he replied; the E is for “eat,” and you can look the rest up.)

The Murray match wasn’t Kyrgios’s lowest moment. That remains the incident in Montreal last summer, when he told the Swiss star Stan Wawrinka between points that his girlfriend had slept with another player. (Kyrgios later apologized.) Still, his desultory Wimbledon performance left the tennis world scratching its head. Before the tournament, there was much talk about Kyrgios’s need for a coach; he’d been without one for more than a year. Afterward, some observers, including Murray, gently suggested that perhaps what Kyrgios needed even more than a coach was a psychologist.

‘His arm was so fast, it was like he was playing with a toothpick.’

Presumably, though, Kyrgios would tell a shrink the same thing that he tells journalists: His problem is tennis. “I don’t love this sport,” he said during the Wimbledon press conference. When we spoke in Florida, Kyrgios insisted he was being honest about this: “If I won a Grand Slam, I’d say the same thing.” He told me that he almost never watches tennis (“no chance, Jesus, I’d rather watch Piers Morgan”) and that he plans to quit playing it by age 27 (“that’s the absolute max”), after which he can pursue his true passion: basketball. He hopes to play professionally, perhaps in Europe. He played competitively as a kid and still plays every chance he gets. During a visit to Nike’s Oregon headquarters, he spent all his free time on the basketball court; at tournaments, he organizes pickup games with other tennis players. His style on the tennis court, with its no-look passing shots and between-the-legs razzmatazz, sometimes makes him look as if he’s trying to play basketball there too.

People around the game have trouble believing Kyrgios is really as down on tennis as he claims; they figure the ambivalence is just his way of deflecting pressure. The expectations for him are huge, and not just because he is so talented. Tennis is approaching a period of transition. Federer just turned 35, a step closer to retirement. The Williams sisters are in their mid-30s. Kyrgios, with his billboard looks and outsize personality, is seen as the one emerging star who can attract new fans and keep old ones from drifting away. (He’s terrific with fans — funny, charming and unusually generous with his time, even working the crowd during matches.) His agents are convinced he could become the sport’s most bankable star yet. Justin Gimelstob, a former player now working as an analyst for the Tennis Channel, put it succinctly when I asked him about Kyrgios: “He’s box office.”

Ever since the retirements of McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, it has been fashionable to claim that tennis lacks “personalities.” In tennis, the word connotes rogues, rebels and freethinkers, although Martin Amis had a point when he wrote that “personalities” was just tennis-speak for “a seven-letter duosyllable starting with an A and ending with an E.” (It’s almost exclusively applied in men’s tennis. The women’s game has had plenty of charismatic figures but not so many racket-smashers and potty mouths, thanks in part to the usual double standards about acceptable behavior — double standards that Serena Williams’s occasional outbursts are just beginning to challenge.) It is certainly true that McEnroe and Connors, along with Ilie Nastase, set standards for lewdness and irascibility that no one since has come close to equaling. But it’s not quite true to say the game hasn’t produced any colorful characters in their aftermath: Players like Andre Agassi, Marat Safin and Goran Ivanisevic were tortured figures whose matches often turned into psychodramas.
Nick Kyrgios Credit Richard Burbridge for The New York Times

Lately, however, men’s tennis isn’t turning out stormy souls as reliably as it did in the past. With a few exceptions, the players behave impeccably, on the court and off; they exude equanimity and seriousness of purpose and are careful not to say anything offensive. A surfeit of gentlemen is far from the worst fate to befall a sport, and complaining about it might seem obscenely small-minded coming at the end of the most spectacular era that the men’s game has ever seen — Federer with a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles; Nadal, 14; Djokovic, 12, the three combining to win 43 of the last 53 majors. Still: Even off-the-charts greatness can get a little tedious, and the fact is that fans, especially casual ones, are drawn to firebrands and eccentrics. Tennis was perhaps never more popular than when McEnroe and Connors were scandalizing the sport’s old guard. Even Federer, a beacon of Old World graciousness, has bemoaned the current shortage of salty characters, complaining that players are now “almost too nice to each other.”

Why did men’s tennis become so much tamer? Money is surely part of it. Tennis is much more lucrative than it was 30 years ago, and the players tend to think of themselves as precious brands — the Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic describes himself without irony as the “C.E.O. of Milos Raonic Tennis.” When Agassi pitched Canon cameras by declaring that “image is everything,” the line was celebrating his own iconoclasm (the denim shorts, the blond rattail); today’s players agree with the sentiment but prefer an image that’s likable, decorous and safe. One paradox of tennis is that what’s good for the sport — clashes, controversies and divisive figures — can be bad for individual players’ bottom lines. I suspect the gentility also has something to do with how the game itself has evolved over the last quarter-century: What used to be a battle of finesse and guile is increasingly a test of strength and endurance, full of three-hour matches and 20-shot rallies. It’s so demanding, physically and mentally, that keeping emotions in check and avoiding distractions is a necessary survival strategy.

Kyrgios’s refusal to submit to convention is a refreshing departure from all this. It says a lot about his talent that he has managed to break into the top 20 while spurning the standard recipe for success — even basics like having a coach. But the maverick act can wear thin. What made players like McEnroe and Connors such intriguing figures was that amid all the meshugas, they rose to the pinnacle of the sport. If they hadn’t won majors, hadn’t reached No. 1, they would have become cautionary tales, not legends. The question for Kyrgios is whether he can achieve similar success without changing his approach and becoming more committed. That seems unlikely, as even he implicitly acknowledged when we spoke. Because he was his own coach, I asked what advice he would give himself if he wanted to win majors. He thought about it for a moment, then said: “Train more than four times a week.” After a pause, he continued. “I don’t have a doubt that if I wanted to win Grand Slams, I would commit,” he said. “I’d train two times a day, I’d go to the gym every day, I’d stretch, I’d do rehab, I’d eat right. But I don’t know what I want at the moment. Am I content? I don’t have a coach, I can train every now and then. I can take it easy and be maybe 10-20 my entire career. Am I O.K. with that? I don’t know.”
Love All

For much of history, tennis was a polite and genteel pastime, right down to the all-white clothing. By around the time John McEnroe entered the scene, though, things were changing — and these days, some of the sport’s most famous moments are its temper tantrums, venomous rages and hysterical diatribes. Here are 10 of the incidents that stretched the limits of court decorum. By Jaime Lowe

Serena Williams
2016, Wimbledon
Fine: $10,000
The No. 1 seed repeatedly smashed her racket into the sideline grass after dropping the first set. Then, without looking or pausing, she flung it behind her with such force that it landed in the lap of a TV cameraman.

Viktor Troicki
2016, Wimbledon
Fine: $10,000
Troicki, disagreeing with a call that led to match point, began screeching and running around in circles. He then challenged the umpire Damiano Torella: “Worst umpire ever in the world! What are you doing? Did you see the ball? You’re so bad!” After the match, he continued gesticulating wildly, asking Torella three times: “Do you know what you did?!”

John McEnroe
1981, Wimbledon
Fine: $1,500 and two point penalties
The tantrum that made headlines in Britain — and provided the title of McEnroe’s autobiography — stemmed from a match against another American, Tom Gullikson. McEnroe disagreed with an umpire and scream-whined an infamous monologue, which began: “You cannot be serious! That ball was on the line. Chalk flew up! It was clearly in. How can you possibly call that out?”

John McEnroe
1984, Swedish Open
Fine: $7,500 and two months’ suspension
Unhappy with a call, McEnroe cleared his sideline refreshment table with his racket, shattering glass on people sitting in the front rows — including a man McEnroe thought was the King of Sweden. It was a prelude for his worst fine, $17,500 and two months’ suspension, at the 1987 U.S. Open, for misconduct and verbal abuse.

Serena Williams
2009, U.S. Open
Fine: $82,500 plus two years’ probation
In her semifinal against Kim Clijsters, Williams took umbrage over a lineswoman’s call regarding a foot fault, and it cost her a penalty point and the match. The now infamous diatribe included: “I swear to God, I’m [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that? I swear to God.”

Dmitry Tursunov
2006, Wimbledon
Fine: $12,000
After describing the chair umpire, Fergus Murphy, as “terrible” and “an idiot” and hitting a ball toward the official, Tursunov took time in a news conference to compare him to the former president of Iraq. “Just because he’s been doing it for many years doesn’t mean that he’s doing a good job,” he said. “Saddam Hussein has been in Iraq for a while, but not too many people agree with his point of view.”

Jeff Tarango
1995, Wimbledon
Fine: $15,500
During his third-round singles match, Tarango accused the chair umpire, Bruno Rebeuh, of being corrupt. The umpire cited Tarango with on-court code violations, including “audible obscenity.” After a point penalty for verbal abuse, Tarango walked off the court in the middle of the third set; after the match, his wife confronted the official and slapped him.

Marcos Baghdatis
2012, Australian Open
Fine: $770
It was a fairly modest fine for an unusually methodical violation. After losing two sets and going down a break in the third, Baghdatis paused during the changeover, sat and smashed his racket seven times on the court. He took out a second racket, removed the plastic and smashed it into the court. He then smashed a third and fourth racket before winning the set. The fine was less than the cost of the equipment.

Mary Pierce
2005, U.S. Open
Fine: None
In tennis, protocol is paramount. Technically, a player can take breaks on the changeovers, or for injury or restroom needs. In 2005, Pierce, down a set, spent 12 minutes being massaged, iced and taped at the service line during what would have been a two-minute change. Her opponent, Elena Dementieva, said in a news conference after, “I don’t think it was a fair play.”

Bernard Tomic
2016, Madrid Open
Fine: None
Tomic employed an unusual strategy in his match-point effort against Fabio Fognini: He received Fognini’s serve by gripping his racket head by the strings, waving its handle and making any attempt at a return shot futile. When asked by The Gold Coast Bulletin why he didn’t try harder (or at all) on match point, he answered: “Would you care if you were 23 and worth over $10 million?”
Illustrations by Lauren Tamaki

“Chubby, mouthy, but unbelievable hand skills.” Those were the words that John Morris, one of Kyrgios’s agents, jotted down in his notebook the first time he saw him play, during the juniors competition at the 2010 Australian Open. Morris, a soft-spoken ex-coach from Britain, was in Melbourne scouting potential clients. It’s hard to believe when you look at Kyrgios today — now a sinewy 6-foot-4, with chiseled features — but just six years ago he was relatively short and quite pudgy, a raw talent from Canberra whose prospects seemed to be limited by his waistline.

Nick was the last of three children born to Giorgos and Norlaila Kyrgios. Giorgos immigrated to Australia from Greece as a child and works as a house painter; Norlaila was born in Malaysia and moved to Australia with her mother when she was 12. Neither played much tennis, but all three of their children took up the sport. Kyrgios says his parents pushed him to choose tennis over basketball when he was 14, but they were not pushy “tennis parents”; by all accounts, they were low-key and quite gracious. Kyrgios himself was said to have been a bit spoiled, indulged in the way that babies of the family often are. Still, in the tight-knit Canberra tennis community, he was generally well regarded, as were his parents.

He was overweight from a young age. He told me he didn’t have a poor diet as a kid, although his grandmother often treated him to Kentucky Fried Chicken after school; he just ate a lot. The weight made him slow and limited his endurance. It was his effort to find a way around these liabilities that helped turn him into the player we see today. To compensate for his lack of speed, he learned to read the game better than other kids, to know where an opponent’s shot was likely to land before the ball was even struck. And because he needed to end points before his stamina flagged, he developed the first-strike, attacking style that is the hallmark of his game. Somehow, he managed to do all this while resisting the rote drilling that is the bedrock of tennis training. From the start, he had no patience for that kind of practicing; he just wanted to play, and he was so competitive that if no one was keeping score, he wasn’t interested. That is still the case.
A young Kyrgios wearing a Celtics jersey. Credit From Nick Kyrgios

In 2011, at 16, Kyrgios played with the Australian squad at a Junior Davis Cup tournament in Mexico. Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champion, was the captain of the team. When Cash and I spoke in the players’ lounge at Wimbledon this year, he told me he’d been struck by the racket speed that Kyrgios generated: “His arm was so fast, it was like he was playing with a toothpick.” He was also blown away by Kyrgios’s rare combination of power and control. Cash played against a 14-year-old Nadal, and what he saw in Mexico convinced him that Kyrgios was every bit as promising.

There were some red flags, though. Cash took the players out for dinner one night and watched Kyrgios inhale two massive burritos — “the biggest things you’ve ever seen, must have been 4,000 calories” — which made him wonder if Kyrgios would ever lose his paunch. Kyrgios was also prone to inexplicable meltdowns and moments of rebellion. During one match, he was crushing a player from Argentina when he suddenly came unhinged, shouting, “I can’t play, I have no rhythm,” before throwing away the second set. On the night before the semifinals, Cash was horrified to discover that Kyrgios, despite nursing a strained muscle, organized a football-throwing competition with teammates on a nearby field. “He was the ringleader, the cheeky one, the one with the jokes,” Cash told me.

Despite the high jinks, histrionics and burritos, Cash came away convinced that Kyrgios was special. At the end of the tournament, he took him aside and said: “Nick, no offense to these other guys, but you are unbelievably talented. You can make it. You can be holding the big trophies.” Fifteen months later, Kyrgios, who had finally experienced a growth spurt and was slimming down, won the Junior Australian Open boys’ singles title. The victory instantly marked him as a great hope for Australian tennis — no easy role. Australia is a sports-crazed nation, and because it has turned out so many celebrated players (Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Smith Court, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Pat Cash, Patrick Rafter, the list goes on), tennis is central to its sporting identity. These players weren’t just great champions, either; they embodied a culture and an ethos. They were plain-spoken, no-fuss athletes, tenacious competitors but also paragons of good cheer and sportsmanship.

‘I think when things get tough, I get a little bit soft.’

Kyrgios is the prodigal heir to this tradition. With his brash manner and flamboyant personal style — showy haircut, sculpted eyebrows, gold chains — he seems more American than Australian, and his misbehavior and occasional lack of effort infuriate many of his compatriots. At this point, hand-wringing about Kyrgios has become a popular Australian pastime. Last year, the cricket legend Shane Warne posted an open letter to Kyrgios on Facebook, saying, “You’re testing our patience, mate,” and urging him to shape up. After Kyrgios was fined $1,500 for shouting an obscenity at a tournament last fall in Shanghai, the Australian-rules football star Taylor (Tex) Walker blasted him on Twitter: “When is this absolute galoot going to learn. What a dead set flog!!”

Kyrgios has reason for hard feelings, too. Some of the criticism he has received can take on racial undertones. There was unmistakable nativism at play when the former Olympic champion swimmer Dawn Fraser said last year that if Kyrgios and the fellow tennis bad boy Bernard Tomic, whose parents are from the former Yugoslavia, didn’t improve their behavior, they should “go back to where their fathers and parents came from. We don’t need them here in this country.” (She later apologized.) The two came under fire again in May, this time from the chef de mission of the Australian Olympic team, a former pentathlete named Kitty Chiller, who warned that if they didn’t curb their antics, they could be kept home from the Rio Games. Her decision to put the players on public notice struck even people not normally sympathetic to Kyrgios as needlessly confrontational. Tomic immediately announced that he would be skipping Rio; Kyrgios followed suit a few weeks later. Although they had a headline-making spat earlier this year, after Tomic suggested that Kyrgios faked illness to get out of a Davis Cup match, the two players are good friends and enjoy the kind of spirited relationship you would expect of guys in their early 20s with multimillion-dollar bank accounts — like the time Kyrgios, along with a few other players, toilet-papered Tomic’s Lamborghini.

Two days after I saw him in Florida, Kyrgios lost his first-round match in Toronto to a Canadian teenager ranked No. 370 in the world. Before the match, Kyrgios tweeted: “Eat, Sleep, Pokémon GO,” and he evidently still had Squirtles and Venusaurs on the brain when he took the court; he served an appalling 18 double faults, 10 more than Murray coughed up over the course of two weeks and seven matches at Wimbledon. In a press conference, he pointed out the enthusiastic backing his opponent received and took a swipe at his own countrymen: “I think Canadians support their athletes a little better than the Australians do,” he said.
Kyrgios playing a juniors match in Melbourne in 2012. Credit Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

In 2015, Kyrgios signed a contract with WME-IMG, the sports management colossus whose tennis clients include Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. But he did not cut loose John Morris, so he now has two agents: Morris and Carlos Fleming, a WME-IMG veteran whose clients also include the N.F.L. star Cam Newton. Morris travels with Kyrgios and handles day-to-day management; Fleming supports the growth of the Kyrgios brand. When we met at Wimbledon, in the backyard of a stately house WME-IMG rented for the tournament, Fleming told me the agency tracked Kyrgios’s progress over a number of years before going after him in earnest. It was after he beat Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago that Fleming and his colleagues pressed to bring him into their stable. “That set off the alarm bell,” as Fleming put it.

To hear Fleming tell it, Kyrgios’s supposed vices were actually virtues. His combustive personality might rankle tennis traditionalists and some members of the media, but it was a boon for the sport. “He’s unscripted, he can bring in casual fans — he’s one of the few athletes who can do that,” Fleming said. “It’s extremely refreshing.” He went on to say that Kyrgios, a product and exemplar of what he called “modern urban youth culture,” could unlock all sorts of unprecedented opportunities for himself and, by extension, for tennis. He cited Kyrgios’s endorsement deal with Beats by Dre and also told me that the N.B.A. had expressed interest in working with him on cross-promotional activities. To Fleming, Kyrgios had the potential to become a trendsetter and marketing phenom beyond anything tennis has seen. But he quickly added a qualifier: “Winning is the first thing.”

And despite all the distractions and all the ambivalence, Kyrgios has done a lot of winning. In the last two years, he has notched victories over Nadal, Federer and Murray. In February, he won his first A.T.P. title in Marseilles, and he won his second earlier this month in Atlanta. His forehand — heavy, sharply angled — is spoken of with awe by his peers, but his serve may be an even bigger weapon, because of both the pace he generates (as high as 130 miles an hour on his first serve; when the racket strikes, it sounds like a tree limb snapping) and his ability to place the ball. He plays very fast, and when he is serving well, he closes out games in barely a minute. He faced Raonic in the quarterfinals of a tournament in Miami in March, and over the course of four service games in the second set, he surrendered just one point. It’s the kind of efficiency that invites comparisons to Federer and Pete Sampras, who held the record for major titles until Federer eclipsed him.

But Kyrgios is still a raw talent, and if he wants to break into the top 10 and contend for majors, he’ll probably need a coach. He has found a mentor of sorts in Radek Stepanek, who is basically his antithesis — a 37-year-old tennis lifer who adores the game and plans to keep playing until his body gives out. When I talked to Stepanek the day after the two faced off at Wimbledon, he said that they’d struck up a friendship after practicing together in Miami, and that he had offered Kyrgios some general suggestions, along with tips for playing specific opponents. But the first thing they talked about, he said, was attitude: “I told him, ‘If you don’t want to be here, then you should go home.’ ” Stepanek said that he was happy to contribute what he could to Kyrgios’s development, but he had no interest in becoming a full-time coach; he was busy with his own career.

A number of people have expressed interest in coaching Kyrgios, but others wonder whether it would just be wasted effort. “You have to be willing to listen, and you have to have some respect,” Pat Cash says. “His behavior toward a lot of people shows that he may not be good at either of those things.” His second match at Wimbledon — against Dustin Brown, a dreadlocked Jamaican-German renowned for his shotmaking prowess — illustrated the challenge a coach would face. Kyrgios was the better player, but it was clear from the start that he had no intention of ceding the highlight reel to Brown; he was determined to match him, crazy shot for crazy shot. The first set was tennis’s version of slam-dunk contest, a showboating extravaganza. A coach would have implored Kyrgios to stick with plain vanilla tennis, but it’s doubtful he would have listened. As Kyrgios told me, “I like to hit fun shots.” He ended up beating Brown in five sets, but his lack of discipline made the match far more difficult than it might otherwise have been.

Could the “fun shots” be Kyrgios’s way of finding pleasure in a sport that he says doesn’t offer him a lot of fulfillment? It’s possible that the ambivalence he expresses about tennis really is his way of deflecting pressure, or that he does it just to get a rise out of people; he’s only 21, and his game has matured much faster than he has. But maybe, when he says that he doesn’t love tennis, he is telling the truth. It wouldn’t necessarily doom his career: Agassi reached No. 1 and claimed eight major titles even though he spent much of his life hating tennis. John Morris told me Kyrgios is so competitive — they play I Spy on car trips, and Kyrgios goes bonkers if he doesn’t win — that he might end up atop the sport in spite of how he feels about it. For now, he remains one of those players who gratify and torment tennis fans in equal measure. Some athletes spend their careers thrilling us, others spend their careers frustrating us and some do both. Maybe Kyrgios is destined to be one of those.

That Saturday in Boca, though, recharged by a recent visit home and together with his girlfriend, Kyrgios seemed content to be on the tennis court. He was practicing with a pair of 17-year-old Americans, Gianni Ross and Sam Riffice, in a typical Kyrgios practice session: He just wanted to play points, while keeping up a running commentary for his audience, a group that included me, Ross’s parents, Tomljanovic’s father, a couple of teenage girls who were apparently there to ogle and Robbye Poole, Serena Williams’s hitting partner, who happened to be at the academy that day. His Pokémon buddy Tauheed Browning was perched by the fence on Kyrgios’s side of the court. At one point, I overheard Kyrgios jokingly upbraiding him, saying, “You’re supposed to be my coach!”

After maybe 30 minutes, Kyrgios decided it was time to kick back. He summoned Browning, Langston Williams and Poole to join in for some Touch Tennis, a game in which players stand close to the net and hit delicate flick shots back and forth until someone misses. Browning ended up losing and was promptly exiled to the far end of the court for a round of Butts Up, in which a player stands motionless while the others try to hit serves into his posterior. Just as he was on that Mexico trip with Pat Cash, Kyrgios was the ringleader and the guy having the most fun — laughing, shouting, throwing his racket in feigned disgust. This was tennis on his terms, and he seemed genuinely happy

1 thought on “The Electric, Infuriating Nick Kyrgios

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: