By Owais Majid
Nick Kyrgios has been one of tennis’s biggest enigmas for some time. Whether mesmerised by his tennis, amused by some of his remarks or appalled by his behaviour, the public have rarely stopped talking about him one way or another. Tennis fans, sometimes in spite of themselves, have always had an opinion on the Australian maverick but there has been a distinct lack of conversation surrounding Kyrgios recently. With the Australian Open, his home slam and the one that has produced more of his highlights than any other approaching, you’d expect there to be some speculation about how he will fare, or indeed if he will even play. I thought I’d take a look at why this may be the case.
Doubtless, Kyrgios’s inactivity is a huge factor at play here. Since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, he has expressed his displeasure at playing in front of no crowds and thus has rarely been seen on a tennis court recently. He sat out the vast majority of 2020 for this reason, returning with somewhat of a bang at the 2021 Australian Open.
Many were swept up by his exploits at said tournament. His second round five-set epic with Frenchman Ugo Humbert on the John Cain Arena, a stadium Kyrgios has made his own, was one of the most uplifting matches of the tournament. It served as a reminder of how much capacity crowds had been missed and it seemed fitting that it was Kyrgios through whom this was realised. He followed this up by contesting another thrilling five-setter as he was edged out by Dominic Thiem in the third round.
Kyrgios then skipped the clay court season and played Wimbledon with little to no preparation (by his own admission). Although he won his first two rounds with little fuss, he was forced to retire very early into his next match against Felix Auger-Aliassime due to a suspected abdominal injury.
He did participate in the Laver Cup, though he revealed afterwards that it may have been his last appearance at the event and retirement in the near future was a very real possibility. This was one of a few occasions in which Kyrgios has hinted at retiring sooner rather than later, citing a lack of enjoyment for the sport in its current state as well as his mother’s ill health as the main reasons. It is no secret that he sees tennis as far more of a hobby than a job, nevertheless talk of retirement when he is still so young was quite a revelation.
The most notable publicity Kyrgios has received of late, besides his bizarre sledging of Casper Ruud on Twitter, has shed him in far from positive light. Back in October, his former partner Chiara Passari made some not-so-cryptic remarks about her relationship with the now 26 year old likening him to Alexander Zverev who the ATP are currently investigating for domestic violence. On Kyrgios, she said “If those speculations and reports were true about Zverev, then his behaviour is very similar to Nick’s.” Though she did not elaborate on this, such a comparison is worrying, particularly with what we know about the allegations Olga Sharypova, Zverev’s ex-girlfriend, made about the German. Kyrgios has been a character who has always divided opinion, but a matter as serious as this is likely to sway even his most loyal supporters.
Furthermore, it is feeling increasingly as if the void left by Kyrgios is no longer as apparent as it once was. While this is partially down to the fact that we have become accustomed to his sporadic appearances on the tour, there are more factors at play. Kyrgios was previously hailed as being one of the few unapologetically open and interesting personalities on the ATP Tour. This is arguably no longer the case. There are now numerous players on the tour who aren’t shy to express themselves, so it feels like Kyrgios’s presence isn’t required anywhere near as much as it once was.
For example, Frances Tiafoe has emerged as the heir to Kyrgios’s throne in many ways. Although he doesn’t possess the natural talent that Kyrgios does, the way he utilises the crowd to his benefit is very similar. Tiafoe has the Kyrgios-like ability to make the viewer care when he is playing and he undoubtedly plays that up, sometimes even to the irritation of his opponent. Moreover, Tiafoe doesn’t really bring the added baggage that has frustrated so many about Kyrgios throughout his career. He has endeared himself with fans with his ability to simultaneously come across as both charismatic and humble and his story is one as inspiring as any.
Another player whose personality seems to have made up for Kyrgios’s absence is the world number two Daniil Medvedev. The Russian is unapologetic in his honesty which appears to know no bounds. Like Tiafoe, his character, particularly the way in which he is one of the most self-deprecating players out there despite his success, has resulted in him being one of the most liked players by fans. Whilst not afraid to speak his mind, he is self aware enough to admit his own flaws, something which should not be underestimated.
As such, the elements of Kyrgios that made him so watchable, even necessary for the growth of the sport at one point, are now manifested in other players, who are far less prone to the outbursts that he has become synonymous with.
All this being said, it would be the most Nick Kyrgios thing imaginable for him to reel us all in by playing an epic at the Australian Open on a bouncing John Cain Arena in a couple of weeks’ time. The ATP Tour continues to market him heavily. His nature is such that often when we feel as if we are finally done with him, he produces something that gets us all back on board the Kyrgios train, even if we know that it is destined to be driven off the tracks at some point.
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