March 2018

Essays

Richard Cooke

Nick Kyrgios: talent to burn

© Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images

Five short pieces about one of tennis’s most misunderstood players

1. Most professional athletes are obsessed with winning, or at least with not losing. This fixation almost always predates them becoming a professional, and sometimes even comes before playing serious sport. It is pronounced in tennis players, and especially pronounced in Nick Kyrgios. He approaches everything from the men’s tour to the video game Call of Duty with the same obsessional thirst for competition, and has done ever since he was an overweight, asthmatic kid playing juniors in Canberra.

This trait is unexceptional for a tennis player, possibly even a requirement, but in Kyrgios it is extreme, and sits uncomfortably with the rest of his personality, which is surprisingly collegiate, fair, funny and empathetic. (You might miss these features on a tennis court.) He has been open about this contradiction, and unusually good at describing it. “There is a constant tug-of-war between the competitor within me wanting to win, win, win,” he wrote for PlayersVoice in 2017, “and the human in me wanting to live a normal life with my family away from the public glare.”

This drive helped him become the youngest player to hold a position in the men’s top hundred ATP rankings. On his first encounters with Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, he beat them all. He will be 23 in April, but sometimes talks as though he is a veteran and a little envious of younger players for their freedom and untested confidence. He retains his own freedom by playing tennis with a degree of flair, spontaneity and expressiveness that often borders on the unwise: “tweeners” – shots hit between the legs – are a signature, and representative of a repertoire that extends to round-the-netpost shots and speculative drop shots from behind the baseline. His frank cross-court forehand slap works around 2 per cent of the time, but is one of the most spectacular shots in tennis when it does.

He is the best Australian player in a generation, and somehow this is considered an underachievement. His former coach Josh Eagle revealed Kyrgios could maintain a position just outside the top 20 while doing less than 15 minutes’ practice a day. Instead he played basketball and video games, and let his quick hands and reflexes pick up the slack.

He injured his hip, shoulder, knee, ankle, back and elbow, sometimes while playing basketball. He earned almost $6 million in prize money, and paid almost $100,000 in fines. Forbes magazine rated him the most fun tennis player in the world to watch, but not the easiest to watch. Many of those fines accrued in strings of code violations, and some were for moments his half-hearted effort dropped to a no-hearted effort. He admitted to deliberately “tanking” in perhaps eight professional tournaments.

He became famous for meltdowns. When the pressure of talent and competition and winning became too acute, he forfeited or gave up. In his second-round match at the Australian Open in 2017, where he led Andreas Seppi two sets to love, he announced “I didn’t sign up for this bullshit” during the third set, received a code violation, and left the court two and a half sets later to the sound of home-crowd booing. He also beat opponents without pleasure, and shook his head after hitting winners.

He was called a brat, a sulking brat, a peanut, a disgrace, a shame, a galoot, and the most talented tennis player of the past decade. (John McEnroe made both the “sulking brat” and the “most talented” comments.) Chinese commentators used a phrase that means “to sink into oblivion”.

There was a time when a Nick Kyrgios press conference could feel like an intervention, or a parole board hearing. Press conferences are on his long list of dislikes, which includes noise, late line calls, umpires, late challenges, fans arriving late, phone calls, birds, ball boys not handing him a towel quickly enough, and, periodically, tennis. He mixes disdain for media calls with a painful degree of disclosure. There were times he didn’t so much wear his heart on his sleeve as display it clinically, as though on an autopsy table. He questioned his commitment. “I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much,” he told the UK’s Independent newspaper. “I don’t love it.” He said his coach deserved better, then parted ways with him.

For most of his career, Kyrgios has had no full-time coach, although sometimes he says he needs one. Very occasionally, professionals do go coach-less, but this is usually when they are established, or ultra successful, or poor. Kyrgios is none of those things. Paul Annacone, who has coached both Federer and Pete Sampras, reportedly called Kyrgios uncoachable, but that is not true either. It is just that no one has been able to draw that sword from the stone. The trouble with coaching Kyrgios is that it involves telling him what to do, an activity near the top of his list of dislikes. Simon Rea, Sébastian Grosjean and Josh Eagle all tried, and Todd Larkham tried twice, but for now Nick Kyrgios’s coach is Nick Kyrgios.

When he referred to the Australian player Matt Reid, his doubles partner, as “my coach” during his Brisbane International victory speech in January, he was joking. Reid hits with him, and forms part of his entourage – along with Kyrgios’s mother and father, his brother, Christos, and his manager, John Morris. They sit in his box, and together they do what they can to create the special circumstances in which their man can play his best tennis. They try to work the controls of his focus, telepathically. “Just try,” his mother Norlaila will say.

He eschews structure, boredom, and the patterns and routines that form the mental counterpart of muscle memory in many tennis players. It is difficult because it has always been easy for him. “A gift and a curse,” he told the reporter Matt Dickinson in 2016. “Ever since I was young, I was always at the top of my age group. There’s probably a lot of people on tour who have to work a lot harder.” He has an impeccable serve, which he uses to cross-subsidise the strange and esoteric shots he prefers. (There is a half-baked theory that Kyrgios’s flair came from his childhood, when he developed his groundstrokes and serve so he didn’t have to run.) For a professional sportsperson, he is surprisingly unfit. These attributes and peculiarities, when combined with surety and talent, and offset with a couple of diamond studs, a rude haircut and a coloured complexion, have been received as insolence, especially in Australia.

If tennis has brought out the worst in Kyrgios, Kyrgios has brought out the worst in Australia. His “antics” provoked a fit of morality that is only now starting to subside. Full licence was granted when Kyrgios directed a sledge at Stan Wawrinka in 2015. The sledge was about the Swiss player’s girlfriend, and after the match Wawrinka reportedly had to be physically restrained from taking to Kyrgios with his fists. Kyrgios was given a suspended ban and fined, but for his detractors no punishment was enough. Sports journalist Rebecca Wilson suggested a boycott. “Never before has there been such a personal, low-rent tirade launched across the net from an opponent,” she wrote, as though Ilie Năstase had never existed.

Dawn Fraser said he should go home to “where his parents are from” (this meant either Greece or Malaysia, possibly both). To the comment sections, he became a flog (not coincidentally the same piece of invective directed at Adam Goodes). Had the sledge come from a cricketer rather than a tennis player, it would have been excused, maybe even celebrated, but on Sky News one sports commentator called Kyrgios a “piece of shit”.

As Kyrgios began to find the pressures of public life more intolerable, each new piece of petulance was added to his permanent record. The Bible says only a sin against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven, but the gospel according to Malcolm Knox disagreed:

Should he reach his potential and begin winning major tournaments, will Australia forgive him (or script for their own absolution and willed amnesia), and rewrite the past as a story of perfectly understandable youthful indiscretion? Will the Davis Cup – a green-and-goldwash of reputation-laundering – be Kyrgios’ avenue to redemption? Shame on you, Australia, for even contemplating it.

Wawrinka had forgiven Kyrgios long ago, but for the Australian press the pearls being clutched were too lustrous to relinquish. What was the endgame? To hang the remains of Kyrgios’s young career on a gibbet, as a warning to others? But a warning against what? There was a generationalist note in all of these pieces, an echo of those commentaries on entitled Gen Ys in the workplace. No respect, all the entitlement, too much money, glued to their smartphones. Now millennials were ruining tennis too.

Few remained chaste in the orgy of sanctimony. In the media, only Russell Jackson, writing for Guardian Australia, suggested that the pressure and cynicism were eroding Krygios’s sense of self. He was “withdrawing himself further back into the comforts of childhood” in response: tantrums, movies and Pokémon GO. Tennis players, past and present, were sometimes more nuanced as well. Kyrgios was never in danger of becoming a friendless oddball like Robin Söderling or Daniel Koellerer, and while he was admonished now and then by fellow professionals they seemed oddly protective of him. Rod Laver thought condemning him was the wrong approach. “The press want to get on him … asking ‘why, why are you doing this?’ and you don’t get an answer, because maybe he doesn’t know the answer.”

Any Australian tennis player born after 1980 is a failure by default, because they play in the shadow of a dynastic period that will never be repeated: Australians won 36 out of the 48 men’s grand slam singles titles contested between 1960 and 1971, and 15 Davis Cups between 1950 and 1967. They won with a gentlemanly, recreational brand of play summed up in the motto “first to the net, first to the bar”. A tradition, curiously, of not taking it too seriously.

Australia loves larrikins, as long as they are white, and polite, and display no flamboyance and voice no controversial opinions. Australia laments there is no colour in public life anymore, complains that sports-people show no personality in their interviews, and then punishes them the moment they do. Australia is willing to embrace Nick Kyrgios, as long as he becomes someone else.


2. Any professional tennis player who raises their voice will sooner or later be compared to John McEnroe. For once, that comparison is pertinent. Kyrgios and McEnroe have a lot in common beyond the clichés. Both outsiders, both preferring basketball, both in some ways not suited to tennis but too good to do anything else, both practice averse, both preternaturally talented, both noise-phobic, both mystified and apologetic but ultimately unrepentant about their own playing emotions.

As a commentator, McEnroe has ribbed Kyrgios, and Kyrgios has returned fire. McEnroe expressed interest in coaching him, and Kyrgios told him that he was “dreaming”. But McEnroe did coach him, briefly, to a match point against Roger Federer at the Rod Laver Cup in 2017, and they were simpatico.

“We just get along pretty well,” Kyrgios said afterwards. McEnroe told Kyrgios to give it his all, and that there was no disgrace losing to a good player, trying to help him calibrate his burning will to win so the flames didn’t lick too high.

“Mac, this is the way I am,” Kyrgios responded. “It looks like this at times.”

Like McEnroe, Kyrgios approaches the court as a concept, a platonic ideal of tennis where there is no crowd noise, no bad line calls, no sluggish surfaces, no stomach bugs, no heat. And every time imperfect reality intrudes, Kyrgios experiences it as a violation. He becomes a vexatious litigant, railing against an unjust system. The so-called tennis authorities are imposters, charlatans there to torment him. Their presence is a mockery of the idea of impartial judgement. Who are they to judge tennis? Can they even play it? One of the staples of his self-talk: “It’s not fair.”

But Kyrgios has never spat at anyone, or hit a cup of water into the King of Sweden’s lap. He only stands out because he’s playing through a period of unusual tennis gentility.

Their rages are different too. McEnroe’s was a form of gamesmanship, a spanner in the other player’s momentum, a break of rhythm and narrative. Kyrgios’s anger is much more self-directed, or directed at his box, as an extension of himself.

Sometimes his petulance becomes a form of fuel itself, like burning the furniture when the firewood has run out. Critics want Kyrgios to find more energy from his body, or from routine, but then he wouldn’t be free anymore.

“I am always going to play with emotion, I have been like that since I was a little kid,” Kyrgios said after his first home title in Brisbane.

Liam Gallagher tweeted: “Nick kyrgios don’t listen to the beige boys do your thang do your thang well done as you were LG x”

 

Right before he serves, Nick Kyrgios moves his fingers over the butt of his racquet in a light flexion, the same movement a gunslinger makes before a quick draw. (He even curls his forefinger as if reaching for a trigger.) His service motion, much studied, carries energy the way a whip does as it arcs into a crack, and sometimes, when he reaches up into the higher echelons of speed, around 220 kilometres an hour, the ball makes a light cracking sound off the strings. At this velocity a “booming serve” is not just a metaphor.

Instead of telegraphing his intent, Kyrgios keeps exactly the same posture no matter where he delivers the ball. His second serve is even more unpredictable, full of shape and spin, or sometimes, if he feels like it, just a flat ace. These serves are enough to take a match away. At the Brisbane International, the Australian Matt Ebden was driven so far back by Kyrgios’s barrage of baffling aces that he wound up receiving deep behind the baseline, and then deeper behind the white BRISBANE logo laid into the court. Ebden mimed his predicament to the crowd by holding his racquet in front of his face, like a shield.

Kyrgios’s first-round opponent at this year’s Australian Open, Rogério Dutra Silva, ranked exactly 100th in the world, was so beaten by the weird, high kick of his second serve that he had to jump into the air to meet it, and the crowd actually laughed. Commentators always say that Nick Kyrgios has the sixth best men’s serve recorded since 1991. Said less often: the five players above Kyrgios on this list – Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, Joachim Johansson, Andy Roddick and John Isner – have only one grand slam win between them.

The problem with these heavy servers is that they are too tall. When they are not serving, they are stooping and running and angling for balls that are too far away from them. No player taller than six foot four has ever been world No. 1. Nick Kyrgios is exactly six foot four, and can perform all of these actions gracefully, as well as feats that shorter, more agile players cannot, like a drop shot, from behind the baseline, at Wimbledon, against Rafael Nadal. Kyrgios watched the replay of this shot more than 100 times, and said one of the things he appreciated about it the most was the luck.

In Brazil they talk about the difference between futebol arte and futebol de resultados – art football and results football. Nick Kyrgios plays art tennis.


3. Nick Kyrgios’s favourite sport, to play and to watch, is basketball. This preference feels a bit illicit, like an open love affair.

He often looks like a basketballer, moving on court with the languid shuffle of an NBA player approaching the free-throw line. After a big serve or forehand, he will find himself caught out by a quick return, because he has emphasised his follow-through to create an aesthetic piece of hang time. After freakish shots he is known to raise his arms, as though looking for a teammate’s chest bump.

Kyrgios had the choice to be a basketball player, at 14, or rather his parents had that choice, and they decided that tennis was a clearer career path. He laments not playing a team sport, and at those junctures where tennis becomes a team sport, like the Davis Cup, no one tries harder (although there was that one tie against Kazakhstan, during a difficult period in 2015, when his mind went AWOL, and he still smashes racquets). The people who call him a flog always go on about “representing Australia”, but the times Kyrgios does represent Australia he is exemplary, always encouraging his friends and teammates. It’s when he is representing himself that there’s trouble.

He is not alone among tennis players in not loving tennis. (There is a reason Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf have no court attached to their family home.) This joylessness is not just a feature of the modern game, or the way it is played now. Tennis is partly cruel because it is unusual. You can score more points than your opponent and still lose. It has no fixed duration: the longest men’s singles match on record is more than 20 times the duration of the shortest.

This perversion of time applies to the tour too. Most sports are as seasonal as crops, but tennis has no fallow period. At one stage, the men’s tennis tour took 13 months – the finals of the year prior were still being played as the new season was beginning. It is now roughly 11 months long, and while few professional athletes of any stripe can hope for a normal life, tennis is absolute in removing any semblance. For someone who gets as homesick as Kyrgios, it is debilitating.

Tennis is lonely not just on court (a player is not even allowed to speak to their own coach) but off it, and it is not just hoop dreams to find the NBA a more attractive prospect. Think, for a moment, about what happens if a basketballer is injured. He retains his salary. His franchise pays for his rehabilitation. He remains part of the team, and will often be surrounded by encouraging teammates as he convalesces. When he returns, he can anticipate regaining his former position in short order. No one thinks the Australian Matthew Dellavedova is in the top 20 basketball players in the world, yet he has an NBA championship ring, won alongside LeBron James, and earns $9.6 million a year.

Any man who plays tennis professionally and is ranked lower than 160th makes a loss. (This can create crushing uncertainty in the very-good-but-not-great: the Australian Sam Groth, for example, put his career on hiatus some years ago, and became a fireman, before returning to the tour.) If a tennis player is injured, he earns nothing. His rehabilitation is self-funded. He drops off the tour, and when he returns to it his ranking may have dropped so far he’s ineligible to play in those tournaments where he can earn his living. He must win his former ranking back. It is possible, in a few months, to go from playing in front of 14,000 paying customers at a grand slam tournament to playing in front of a handful of family members and the odd curious onlooker at a far-flung ATP Challenger event (say, in Astana, Kazakhstan).

The fortunes of Nick Kyrgios are sometimes tied to those of Bernard Tomic, another European-Australian “bad boy” not enamoured of tennis. But the 25-year-old Tomic has immolated his bridges, and seems plagued by even deeper existential questions. His position has degraded so thoroughly, his diplomatic relations with the tennis administrators are so shot, that neither ranking nor wild card could gain him entry into the 2018 Australian Open. Instead he had to qualify.

He played Italian hopeful Lorenzo Sonego on an outside court, where play occasionally had to be stopped so a train could rumble past. The small crowd (admission: free) was supportive, but sensed the diminishment, and in a match played in the kind of heat that creates despondency, Tomic wilted, his talent in tatters. Like Kyrgios, he had once been ranked 17th in the world.


4. At the 2018 Australian Open, Nick Kyrgios was telling someone in the crowd to shut up, tersely, but with no particular malice, and as he did the tension inside Melbourne Park’s Hisense Arena heightened for a moment, expectant. Perhaps this shouting would not end.

Of all his peculiarities, maybe the most distinctive is Kyrgios’s aversion to noise. This is a liability for someone whose office is a fully peopled stadium.

A professional tennis match can be raucous, but it is never just raucous. Its sound levels range from nothing to a roar that envelops the game, and there are constant staccato patches of interference.

As a player serves, a stadium may be the quietest collection of 14,000 people you can have. It is not a silence, though, but a hush, the sound of latent sound under restraint, and as the point develops, the rhythm of the ball and the strings and the sighs of the players will be joined by the crowd. Throughout it all, though, the sound is still intermittent enough that you can hear a lone idiot shout “That’s out!” – say, when a ball hits the line.

In the murmur between points, there is enough aural space that tennis players can have conversations if they want to, with themselves, or their opponent, with umpires, or even individual fans. At the 2016 Shanghai Masters a fan called out, “Respect the game!” Kyrgios replied, “You wanna come here and play? Sit down and shut up and watch!”

At the Open, his brother Christos wore a T-shirt at one match that said “QUIET PLEASE”, and it was hard to tell if it was a joke about the crowd or about Nick. Kyrgios’s proclivity is well known enough that it is almost endearing now, and a bit hammy, like a maestro saying, “How do you expect me to work under these conditions?!” When a couple chatted quietly during a point, someone leaned in and said, “Nick will yell at you if you keep that up.”

 

The Australian Open itself describes Hisense Arena as “more raucous [than the other arenas], it’s more lubricated, it’s more primal, and it’s exactly the kind of circus that Kyrgios thrives in”. This was supposed to explain why Kyrgios had asked to play at Hisense, the people’s arena with a younger, more multicultural crowd and a cheaper ticket price, but the circus part was wrong. Nick Kyrgios doesn’t like circuses, and has been known to spend 45 minutes explaining this to an umpire if, say, someone in the crowd starts playing music.

His first-round match went smoothly: most people responded to his request to shut up, and there was only one Hisense clown in the circus, who called out during the ball toss. Kyrgios dealt with him by politely telling him to the shut the fuck up.

The second-round match, at Hisense, against the Serbian journeyman Viktor Troicki presented a different kind of test, and a watershed in Kyrgios’s psychological development. It was highly unusual, and could have been custom made to violate his delicate sense of fairness.

The problems started with a noise: something went wrong with the PA. At first the umpire spoke through a hail of static, then said things that sounded like “mrph bmmtn”, then shouted his instructions to the players. When Kyrgios pointed out that the crowd was laughing every time the umpire used the microphone, the official finally decided to remain silent. (Not coincidentally, Kyrgios played some of his best tennis of the tournament during this spell of reticent officialdom.)

A spectator, later revealed to be a viral video maker enacting a prank called “SEX NOISE AT THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN TENNIS!!!”, filmed himself screaming “Ohhhh yeahhh!” into his phone until security arrived. Kyrgios looked on curiously. “Bro,” he called out, sounding concerned. It didn’t sound like a prank, more like someone in the crowd having a medical event, and it wasn’t until after the game that the enigma was explained to Kyrgios. “Good on him,” he responded. “Little claim to fame. Let him have it.”

It created an unsettled energy, though, and then midway through the second set a red helicopter came over the open Hisense roof and instead of flying away just hovered there, its thrumming rotors resonating around the stands. It was hard to tell what the pilot was doing, and the unease wasn’t only because it was interrupting the match. Kyrgios looked up at the chopper with a tired expression that seemed to say, “Typical.” (John McEnroe had once screamed “Shut up!” at a jet plane.)

“What is happening?” Kyrgios asked the umpire, and began one of his dialogues, and the umpire picked up a phone to call … who? Air traffic control? Kyrgios, who had started looking at the helicopter like he wanted to knock it out of the sky with a lob, settled for some headshaking, and the helicopter moved on. It flew off after the phone call, but it was hard to see how these could be related.

The crowd was enjoying the circus atmosphere. Troicki caught a Kyrgios ball with his frame, and it looped up and struck the umpire in the side of the head. Not his night, the official said later. Troicki’s shoelaces broke, and he jerry-rigged a repair. A trio of agitated seagulls arrived, and made a squawking tribute to the helicopter, and the crowd laughed, because by then it really did feel as though they were special envoys sent to annoy Nick Kyrgios. Nick Kyrgios who hates noise.

“I think last year, the year before, I probably would have been still out on the court right now,” Kyrgios said afterwards. He had stayed in control, holding for a three-set win. “I could be losing that match.” He meant losing it right now, instead of sitting in the press conference.

“It’s pretty easy to think, why me?” he said, with the traces of a rueful smile. “The guy in the crowd was crazy. I didn’t really know what was going on … the helicopter, that’s when I was thinking, like, Of course it’s at my match. It’s just hovering there. Of course it is.

“Kyrgios and silence,” the Herald Sun’s Leo Schlink wrote later, “are seldom found on the same court.”

 

On paper, the 2018 Australian Open was a par result for Kyrgios – ranked No. 17 in the world, he was knocked out in the round of 16. But those watching his trajectory more closely felt it was a breakout tournament of sorts.

He had two landmark encounters – a sporting vanquishment of his childhood hero, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and a tense, valiant defeat by Grigor Dimitrov – at Rod Laver Arena. He howled and yelled and swore and smashed a couple of racquets. Sometimes he asked the impossible of his box – “talking with friends”, he called it later – at one point excoriating them for not standing up enough, so they started standing up and applauding at random times, like when he netted at 0–15. It was an open tournament, and the match with Dimitrov was close, so it was easy to fantasy football another version of Kyrgios to the final. He received a standing ovation, and said he felt like he deserved it. He was maturing, partly redeemed, but the cooler analysts knew the difference in discipline that marks out the higher rankings, the finalists and the final winners in grand slams.

It might be rational to see the difference in effort and enjoyment and family and private life between No. 20 and No. 2 in the world, and elect for the former. But if that is the choice for Kyrgios, it seems to eat him. He cannot stand to not play the tennis he knows he can play, but he also plays in a way that guarantees inconsistency.

I wanted to know what this felt like, to be exceptional but not dominant, and asked James Blake, the American former world No. 4. What did he think about Kyrgios?

“Of course there is some sort of racial element when critics feel that a young man of colour is speaking up, and they always are portrayed as ungrateful,” he told me.

“But he isn’t that different from a lot of young players that are forced to grow up on tour. He has exceptional talent, and that sets him apart as well. Most of the things he has done would be considered growing pains for players on tour.

“Some people don’t realise that when you are in it it’s basically impossible to please the critics. They will always expect more. You can’t win every single match, so you have to find a way to be okay with that.”


5. The guy must have been pushing 50, but he was wearing shorts, and a lanyard, and the distinctive perma-squint that comes with watching a lifetime of tennis. The Australian Open hadn’t really started in earnest yet, so I guessed he was here for work.

“Did you used to be a tennis player, by any chance?”

“If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that,” he said, without telling me how many dollars he would have had. He had played, once upon a time, but now coached, and was here for a coaching conference. Could I pick his brain about Nick Kyrgios’s game? It was so unusual, after all. What did he see, that a civilian watching might not see?

“Kyrgios’s problem,” said the coach, “is that the brain isn’t there. It’s a feature of those European-Australian players. You see that same problem of intelligence and application with Bernard Tomic. I mean – did you see the press conference yesterday?”

Tomic had been badgered by reporters until he snapped back: “All I do is count my millions – you try doing what I do!”

“What did you think of that?” the coach asked.

“Well, he was under a lot of pressure,” I said. “And his dad …”

“An Australian – I mean an Australian-Australian player, someone like Lleyton Hewitt or Pat Cash, would never do that. There are kids watching. They were respectful. They had humility.”

Wait … what? Lleyton Hewitt had humility and was never disrespectful? True, he had eventually won Australia’s respect – the same way he had won everything else, by grinding away – but to pretend he had always been a gentleman was revisionism.

I had just revisited some of Hewitt’s early-career behaviour, and the hostility it reaped, and the reaction was so extreme I wondered if Kyrgios’s reception was really so bad. In the early 2000s, before he won Wimbledon, the readers of Inside Sport voted Hewitt the least admired sportsperson in the world.

I mentioned the time Hewitt had gone on a riff about the “stupidity of the Australian public”, and the time he had called an official at the French Open a “spastic”, and how he used to howl “Fix the courts!” at the Australian Open. Respectful?

“Oh yes, he was very respectful,” said the coach. “If he lost, he credited his opponent. These European Australians are too arrogant for that! You’ll notice they won’t credit their opponents in the press conference – it was all them having a bad day.”

I hadn’t noticed that at all. Nick Kyrgios’s pre- and post-match press statements, win or lose, follow an almost pro-forma “credit the opponent” line. Kyrgios talks fast, so it sometimes comes out like “yeahhe’satoughopponnentnevergivesapointawayyoufeellikeyouhavetoearnit”, but if anything he tends to give his opponents too much credit. Even during matches, he will sometimes applaud or say “Yeah, good shot” or “Great serve, champ”.

“I hadn’t noticed that, about the press conferences,” I said.

“Mark Philippoussis was the same,” said the coach. “Serena Williams was the same.”

Serena …? I was beginning to notice something else.

“There’s a thinly veiled link between them and Kyrgios … Jelena Dokic was almost as bad,” he said.

What about John McEnroe, wasn’t he “linked” to them too?

“Oh no, he was very intelligent,” said the coach. He liked John McEnroe. “And the Swedes, they would never talk back like that. Unthinkable! You get these pockets. It’s the upbringing. I don’t want to be condescending or racist or anything like that.”

“Of course not,” I said.

Remarkably, his analysis brooked no exceptions at all. Asian players were respectful. Spaniards and Italians were arrogant, but Spaniards gave it their all. Russians were stoic and never showed emotion, because that’s how they were brought up.

“Are you telling me Marat Safin, who broke 700 racquets, never showed emotion?” I asked.

“That’s right. No emotion.”

What about Daniil Medvedev, who threw coins at a Wimbledon umpire? What about Mikhail Youzhny, who once pounded his forehead with his racquet until it bled? It was no use.

“Kyrgios does seem to be maturing, though,” said the coach.

He had played well to win the Brisbane International, we agreed, holding on in moments where once he might have teetered, psychologically. “These top guys are thinking three or four points in advance, or even three or four games in advance,” said the coach, “and if Nick could just get his head around the game …”

“Yes,” I said.

“But he plays with no intelligence.”

I had to be going.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to The Monthly.

@rgcooke

March 2018

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Primitive Motion’s ‘House in the Wave’ and Totally Mild’s ‘Her’

Two Australian groups use vocals to swoon-worthy effect

Held to account

Why is the cost of banking in remote communities so high?

‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes

The meticulous novelist takes on the oldest subject there is


More in The Monthly Essays

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Hotel Golf

Helen Garner on life, anger and judgement

Image of Rohingya refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

An unnatural disaster for the Rohingya

Myanmar’s systematic attack on its own people has been ignored for too long

Image of sound waves

When sound becomes pain

A controversial diagnosis is giving hope to sufferers of debilitating hearing issues

Image of Women’s Liberation march, Sydney, 1972

Making women’s unpaid work count

Feminist economics pioneer Marilyn Waring on care and the unfinished feminist revolution


Read on

Image from ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: a safe take on the rogue’s origin story

Ron Howard’s entertaining prequel is missing the looseness Han deserves

Editor’s Note June 2018

Image from ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)

Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

Image from ‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC

‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre

Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace


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