Nick Kyrgios, the most engaging young arriviste in tennis, looks to have run into a physical and mental brick wall on his way to world domination, and seems lost on the eve of Wimbledon, where last year he announced his arrival with a virtuoso performance to stun Rafael Nadal.
Having already pulled out of the Nottingham tournament with an unspecified illness, the Australian announced he was leaving his on-off coach, Todd Larkham, by mutual consent. And he still has to get his chronically weak elbow into shape in time for the championships, which start on Monday – not to mention coping with a large dose of ennui.
After losing to Stan Wawrinka in the first round at Queen’s last week, he sounded as if he were descending into a monumental funk; he was going to hide in his house for a few days, he said, listen to his music and just hang out with his mates. Was stardom overwhelming the 20-year-old?
But, as Wawrinka remarked later, Kyrgios – whom he likes – often plays games with the media. It is part of his schtick. And he wore a smile bordering on sarcastic when, talking to a small group of reporters later, he reckoned part of what he liked about tennis was “talking to you guys”.
Yet there are a lot of good vibes still circulating around the world No29. Among his most biggest admirers is John McEnroe, who survived his own youthful flights of brilliance and attendant tumbles, not to mention serial jousting with reporters – and never more spectacularly than at Wimbledon, the place he came to love like a delinquent returning to the school where he endured most chastisement. McEnroe now holds a BBC microphone rather than a racket but is just as authoritative.
Asked to name one player he reckoned might shake up Wimbledon this year, the former three-times champion had no hesitation: “Kyrgios. He is close to being ready to make a big breakthrough if I had to pick one guy. I wouldn’t pick him to win. But I would think, if there was someone other than the obvious guys, he would be the guy that I would pick – more so than a year ago, when I would have said a Dimitrov-Djokovic final. I was looking at that for this year – and I would be pretty hard-pressed to feel that is going to happen right now.”
The American empathises with the Kyrgios method: sometimes reckless disregard for safety, trusting his talent whatever the circumstances. “He brings this belief and intensity. There is something about him. It is not often you see that with a player, and it is nice to see. I am not exactly sure what he has done since he beat Nadal at Wimbledon in order to position himself so he is that much better and fitter [Not enough, it transpires]. He looked like he just wasn’t ready or fit enough to deal with Andy Murray at the French Open [where he lost in the third round]. So there is still a way to go.”
McEnroe was not surprised Kyrgios struggled against Murray in Paris, collapsing in three turbulent sets as his body began to give up on him. “I expected Andy would give him a little masterclass. The problem for Kyrgios is that over the last couple of years it is getting tougher and tougher for the teenagers – or someone around there – to go all the way, because these guys are so well prepared. It is so difficult to beat a guy like Murray best of five – especially on clay when he is confident.”
McEnroe is more upbeat talking about one of his compatriots, Jack Sock, who got to the fourth round in Paris, losing to Nadal, and looks capable of breaking into the top 20 this year from No31. “I like Sock a lot. I think he has improved quite a bit. He has gotten fitter, and done the right things to position himself to be a top 10 player. Whether that means he is going to win majors, that’s a different story.
“He has had some injury issues. I like his attitude too, it is nice to see a guy where doubles [alongside Vasek Pospisil] is helping his singles. He is maybe our best player. [John] Isner is dangerous against anybody but I would be surprised if Jack’s ranking doesn’t move up ahead of him soon.”
McEnroe brackets Sock with Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis and, to a lesser extent, Borna Coric, among the young breed. “Those are the guys you hope step up – all four of them in a reasonably short time – and will be in the top 10. It’s not going to mean anything if they don’t make it big. But if all of a sudden these were the top guys in the world, it could be the shot in the arm that we need. You’ve got to make the sport cool again.”
The old hothead knows all about cool.
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