Now that the authorities have cracked down on his persistent poor behaviour, the question for Nick Kyrgios to answer – and hopefully it is one that he will be asking himself during his unexpected sabbatical – is whether he owes it to himself to explore the outer reaches of his vast talent.
In the end, it is not about you, me or the paying punters he so disrespected with his shameful exhibition of indolence against Mischa Zverev in Shanghai last week, the sheer egregiousness of which compelled the ATP to slap Kyrgios with a suspension that has been a long time coming.
Those of us who enjoy the theatre of Kyrgios at his best, having thrilled at the insouciance of his breakthrough victory over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago, would find it immensely disappointing to watch him fade away, but we would soon move on with our lives.
Ultimately it is up to the rebellious Australian to decide whether he is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to reach the top, to discover whether he truly loves the sport that has turned him into a star with the potential to conquer the world and earn millions.
One can have sympathy for a 21-year-old who is struggling to cope with fame and responsibility without failing to recognise that he is letting himself down, assuming that tennis is what he is supposed to excel at for the next 10 or 15 years. While Kyrgios is unsure, he has said that he does not know how to exist without tennis. It is both a blessing and a curse that he is a flawed genius with a racket in his right hand.
It is easy to understand why the ATP, almost acting out of a duty of care, has banned and fined Kyrgios until 15 January for his conduct in his 6-3, 6-1 loss against Zverev. The lack of effort Kyrgios put into his serve and groundstrokes could be seen as a cry for help and given that he has been accused of tanking in the past, the ATP had no choice but to act. The decision was not remotely controversial.
For his part, Kyrgios apologised on Monday and there are indications that he will accept professional advice, with the ATP saying that his suspension will end on 7 November if he accepts the help of a sports psychologist. That would be a step in the right direction.
Some of Kyrgios’s critics see a spoilt brat who has been given too much too soon. Some of his antics have been in dismal taste, such as the slur he aimed at Stan Wawrinka and the Swiss player’s girlfriend, Donna Vekic, last year. Others have been those of a young man melting in the spotlight.
Tennis is mentally punishing. All alone on the court, watched by thousands but unable to lean on any of them in the toughest moments, many players suffer and wilt in the heat of battle. No one is immune, even the very best. Novak Djokovic has slumped since completing the career slam at the French Open in June, a crucial dip in intensity denting the world No1’s aura in the past few months. Who wants it more? It sounds like a cliche but it applies here. Sometimes, the top players sneak over the line thanks to their stubbornness.
Kyrgios looks ill-equipped to succeed in such a demanding environment, hopping from one country to the next for yet another tournament, and he has often sounded racked by self-doubt while discussing whether he likes tennis.
“I don’t have a doubt that if I wanted to win grand slams, I would commit,” he told the New York Times before the US Open. “I’d train two times a day, I’d go to the gym every day, I’d stretch, I’d do rehab, I’d eat right. But I don’t know what I want at the moment.”
What does Kyrgios actually want? This is a professional athlete who warmed up for his defeat to Andy Murray at Wimbledon by playing computer games before admitting that his performance was pathetic. He called himself soft. His words hinted at a contradiction: his preparations were slack, but it was possible to detect disgust at the way he rolled over against Murray, which at least suggested that he does take pride in his output on the court.
The ATP’s tough love could be a turning point for Kyrgios. Only last week, however, he was rubbishing the idea that he would ever employ a coach who might be able to improve his focus. That, after all, does sound a lot like hard work.
But a steadying influence is what Kyrgios needs and the situation is likely to become chronic without one. Maybe it makes no difference. Maybe tennis is not for him. Whatever path Kyrgios chooses, all we can do is hope that he does not end up with regrets.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010