Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Curious Case of Nick Kyrgios

By Kevin Beane

Nick Kyrgios is an Australian tennis player that, at 21 years of age, is ranked 16th at the world at the time of this writing. Everyone ranked ahead of him is 23 or older.

Last week, in the quarterfinals of the Acapulco Open, he played the No. 2 player in the world, a guy you may have heard of named Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has not lost to a player as young as Kyrgios since 2010, and even then, it was via retirement. Even though Kyrgios has been playing on the tour for a few years now, this was his first matchup against Djokovic.

And he made the most of it, not just beating Djokovic but straight-setting him, 7-6(9), 7-5. It wasn't fluky. Kyrgios had 25 aces to Djokovic's 2. He won a higher percentage of his first serve points, his second serve points, and return points than Djokovic.

This is coming off a 2016 season that was monstrously successful for Kyrgios, winning three titles, including the ATP-500 Japan Open. He seems poised to win multiple slams.

If that's to happen, however, he's going to have to change something that strangely makes me root for him, and that's that he's a huge jerk.

Let me be clear here: I don't like huge jerks. I don't like small jerks. I don't like jerky behavior. But the way Kyrgios is a jerk is so straight out of the 21-and-under Jerk Handbook that I think it's impossible not to look at his behavior without a hint of recognition, if you had even the tiniest rebellious streak, or thought you knew everything at that age, as most of us did.

Case in point: in 2015, during a match against Stan Wawrinka, Kyrgios took a dig at Wawrinka, telling him during a changeover, "[Australian tennis player Thanasi Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that, mate." That was the part the media seized on. But what was more interesting to me, however, is that the mics also caught beforehand muttering, "(Wawrinka is) banging 18-year-olds." In other words, what drove Kyrgios to openly insult Stan Wawrinka was that he, at age 30, had an 18-year-old girlfriend, and being a know-it-all (at the time) 20-year-old, he was so mortally offended by this that just had to lash out at Wawrinka.

And you know what? He's right. It is gross when 30-year-olds have 18-year-old girlfriends. It's just that it's legal, it's common, and most of us have acquired just enough chill that we don't call people out for that, at least in that confrontational way that meant only to insult, not to highlight some questionable behavior. Like we all did at his age, Kyrgios thinks he knows everything.

But there's so much more petulance where that came from that I can't even document it all. I've never seen a Kyrgios match where he didn't bitch to the umpire about something at least once. He seems to tank quite a bit, and it was so obvious that he was tanking during his second round match at the Shanghai Masters in October (he asked the umpire, "can you call time so I can finish this match and go home?") that the ATP suspended him for eight weeks.

All this is documented on his Wikipedia page. What isn't there are his comments like the following, which he made in 2015: "I don't really like the sport of tennis that much. I don't love it. It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don't love the sport."

He's said similar things on several occasions, often adding that his first love is basketball, and while he acknowledges that that ship has probably sailed, he sometimes thinks he has pro basketball potential, at least in theory.

Again, I recognize the sniveling, "Huh! I'm great at this game and I don't even care" attitude. The tanking (Shanghai was just one example, he also told Davis Cup officials he didn't want to be there) goes right along with it. I also want to point out to Kyrgios that he is legally an adult and has won quite a bit of money by now (in tennis prize money alone, to say nothing of endorsements), and so if we wants to retire and focus full time on making it as a basketball player, no one and nothing is stopping him. He won't, though, because like most 21-year-olds, he's full of it.

So, in spite of all of this and in spite of my normal standards in deciding who to fanboy over, I like him. I root for him. The thing is, though, time is running out on his Mickey Mouse act being cute. If he's 25 or 30 and is still carrying on this way, having learned nothing and not reached anything resembling his limitless potential, nor finding the guts to walk away from a job he doesn't like and can afford to leave, it'll just be pathetic and I'll be the first to say so.

Until then, berate one more umpire for me, Kygs. Give me that old-time [John] McEnroe feeling.

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