Why we might resist caning Nick Kyrgios and perhaps just ask if he’s OK

Tennis - Japan Open men's Singles Final Match

A couple of months back Nick Kyrgios was the subject of a lengthy profile piece in the New York Times.

This was considered highly unusual for a player ranked only No16 in the world, but especially so that a 21-year-old Australian of any kind should be considered worthy of such heightened discourse in an august publication.

In most ways it sat firmly within its genre and rarely surprised, but one sub-plot stuck out. Tasked with unravelling the enigma that is Nick Kyrgios, his profiler Michael Steinberger focused his sights on the tennis star’s obsession with Pokémon Go, which for the time the writer spent with Kyrgios, he played incessantly with his entourage – a pair of junior tennis prospects, 13-year-old Tauheed Browning and 14-year-old Langston Williams.

There was this:

They had bonded with Kyrgios over a shared infatuation with Pokémon Go, the blockbuster mobile game, and the three were apparently now inseparable. They had gone to the movies and the mall together.

And also this, with regards to Kyrgios’ girlfriend and fellow professional tennis star, Ajla Tomljanović:

[Tomljanović] didn’t appear to mind sharing her boyfriend’s attention with Browning, Williams and Pokémon – although later in the day, at a photo shoot in West Palm Beach, she expressed some mild exasperation when Kyrgios, summoned to the wardrobe room, implored her to take over his game. ‘I’m not playing Pokémon with your seven-year-old friend,’ she said. Kyrgios quickly corrected her, albeit incorrectly: ‘He’s 10, not seven.’

There are a number of conclusions you could draw from this, including not taking it entirely seriously, but the impression it left on me is that faced with the myriad pressures of a quite brutal and unforgiving professional sport, Nick Kyrgios is not only resisting adulthood, he’s withdrawing himself further back into the comforts of childhood – the tantrums, the mood-swings, the trips to the cinema with 13-year-olds, and the Pokémon Go.

It says a bit about him and the strange world of tennis, but it also says a hell of a lot about us, and the way we’ve treated him. It’s no wonder he should surround himself with children and their uncynical, open-minded outlook on life.

Later in the profile, Steinberger sees Kyrgios in full flight on the practice courts, a session in which he “just wants to play points” and gives up after half an hour of running commentary for the amusement of those watching, including his two young friends, who are eventually brought onto the court too. Always the class clown.

On Wednesday Kyrgios “tanked” a service point at the Shanghai Masters, which is clearly problematic, but as the match unravelled for him it also highlighted why we might resist caning the guy and perhaps just ask if he’s feeling OK. Less than a week ago Kyrgios won his third ATP singles title at the Japan Open and appeared a world beater. Lleyton Hewitt said he should be setting his sights on the Australian Open trophy. Days later Kyrgios looks like he wants centre court to open up and swallow him. Those are pretty wild ups and downs for one young person in the space of a week.

What’s becoming clear is that Kyrgios is no more capable of handling the amplified emotional challenges of a life lived in the intense spotlight of pro tennis than any other person his age, and there’s now a strong body of evidence to conclude that his coping mechanisms are really not up to spec. Yet he is also, I think, a realist and quite self-knowing. He said this after the match: “You want to buy a ticket? Come watch me. You know I’m unpredictable. It’s your choice. I don’t owe you anything. Doesn’t affect how I sleep at night.”

You’d question the last sentence, because between checking his social media feeds and playing computer games, he rarely gets much sleep at the best of times, but who other than tournament organisers and integrity scrutineers can say Kyrgios actually owes them anything? His sponsors, perhaps? Maybe his family? He’s certainly not representing his country when he’s out there at a tournament like this. Even when he’s falling apart he’s more interesting than most players when they’re playing well.

Kyrgios says he can’t grasp the frustration of fans. “I can’t really understand it at all,” he said today. “They don’t know what I’m going through, so no, I don’t understand it.” They don’t know what I’m going through. That’s the excuse of a child, and a bit of a cliché, but it’s also true. It would be disingenuous of us to claim any understanding at all of what it’s like to be him – all of that explosive talent and raw, childish emotion, but a total absence of the protective layer he needs to shield him from disastrous moments like this.

If you ever find yourself at a tournament Kyrgios is playing at, don’t just watch him on centre court – though that is definitely where his talent belongs – because there he is hemmed in at the sidelines by the suspicious, cynical and voyeuristic gaze of the mostly middle-aged audience who can afford seats close to the action.

Instead watch him on the practice courts, where you can see up close the full manifestation of his otherworldly talent, but also the internal forces that work constantly at cancelling it out; the darting eyes, the motor-mouth, the kiddish fragility and the inattentiveness.

Surrounding those practice courts, craning their necks, climbing fences and yelling out his name, you will also see an entirely different crowd, the one with whom Kyrgios most easily identifies and the one which sees the best and worst of itself reflected back almost every time he plays: children.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 12th October 2016 23.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010