The Australians gathered at the 2015 US Open are not exactly the Millwall of tennis but they do give the impression of caring little about what faraway critics think of them, or even those with tape recorders and microphones who turned the players’ garden at Flushing Meadows into the modern equivalent of a medieval court.
In one chair sat Nick Kyrgios, telling an Australian broadcaster what he had told others: he was sorry but not embarrassed about what he said to Stan Wawrinka in Montreal this month. In another was Thanasi Kokkinakis, his friend, who managed to sidestep any suggestion of involvement in the sorry episode.
It might serve them well here, coping with this steady drip of opprobrium, just as their cricketers rode the storm of criticism for a chaotic Ashes campaign to make a defiant statement at The Oval, a final tweaking of the nose to set the record straight. There is little profit in underestimating Australian bloodymindedness. Or it might seep into their will and fortitude. It is impossible to tell. They are still kids.
What a turnaround it is for Lleyton Hewitt – who disgraced himself here en route to the title in 2001 with a tirade against a linesman that many onlookers thought was racist (an allegation he denied) but would hope to bow out of the big time at some point over the next fortnight as a respected veteran and is now cast in the role of father figure among a small collection of unreconstructed larrikins.
While the little Aussie battler is doing his best to keep his flock in order Kyrgios has not made it easy for him as Kokkinakis – drawn into the story for reasons only the innocent Donna Vekic could verify or deem irrelevant – remains a reluctant and embarrassed villain off-stage. As for Bernard Tomic, Sam Groth, Matthew Ebden, James Duckworth and John Millman, they would appear to have had no role at all in this soap opera, but the tournament is young.
So it is not a straightforward gig for Hewitt, 34-years-old and hanging on to a world ranking of 347, who might have imagined he could devote his energy to making his final appearance in a major something to remember for the right reasons. It might turn out that way for the former US Open champion, here on a wildcard, although he will probably put his supporters through an extended period of hell in the first round against Aleksandr Nedovyesov.
The Kazakh will remember him well. In Darwin this summer Hewitt, in his 77th Davis Cup match, stunned Nedovyesov to win the final rubber in three sets and secure a place in the semi-finals against Great Britain in Glasgow, to be played a week after the final here.
Kyrgios – who earlier in the tie lost to Nedovyesov, muttering “I don’t want to be here” during a changeover – has much to thank Hewitt for. Ignoring all the flak, he took Kyrgios to his home in the Bahamas to prepare for the US Open – and introduced him to a bit of sparring in a boxing gym there. A punch in the nose might be what Kyrgios needed to wake up to his responsibilities.
Hewitt knows what it is like, having been thrust centre stage as world No1 at 20, the youngest ever in the men’s game. Kyrgios is 20 and ranked 37th in the world. If he makes it to the top, he should be grateful to those older players who have given him encouragement in hard times – including Murray.
Asked why he mentored Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, rising players who could potentially be significant rivals in the years to come, the Scot said: “For me, when I was growing up, I remembered a lot of the guys who were helpful and nice to me when I first came on to the tour. I enjoy it – they’re obviously very enthusiastic, they always give you good practice. They put in big effort in the training sessions and they want to learn as well, so it’s perfect. A lot of them are really nice guys. I get on well with most of them. I enjoy training with them.” And fans enjoy watching them. Quite how much they enjoy listening to them is another question.
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