NEW YORK — I’m a big believer in not judging something, or someone, until you witness it, or them, with your own two eyes. Things are just different in person. Even with the luxury of ultra-high definition television and the unparalleled access of social media, the latter of which can give the illusion of knowing someone when you really don’t at all, every interaction is colored by the medium through which you consume it.
I’ve read countless stories about Nick Kyrgios. Many on this very website. He’s the most talented player of the post-Federer/Nadal generation.He’s a waste of talent whose immaturity will keep him from ever becoming the player he should be. He’s a breath of fresh air for tennis and has major crossover appeal, the kind of figure the sport desperately needs.
I’m familiar with them all, but I did my best to clear my mind of any convictions before coming to his match Thursday at the U.S. Open. I wanted to see how I felt about this sporting enigma who is just four months my junior.
I wanted the full Nick Kyrgios experience, and I knew I wouldn’t get that if I came on Saturday, when he’ll play Roger Federer most likely on Arthur Ashe. Kyrgios loves the big moment and relishes the opportunity to punk the biggest players on the biggest stages. Perhaps more than any other player, he rises to meet the moment and quality of his opponent and, conversely, has a tendency to drop his level when there isn’t quite as much energy surrounding a match.
A second-round match in sweltering heat on Court 17 against Pierre-Hugues Herbert set the stage for a classic Nick Kyrgios afternoon. And, if you’re in the business of being entertained, he certainly did not disappoint.
With all due respect to Herbert, a perfectly good tennis player ranked No. 75 in the world and a three-time Slam champion in doubles, Kyrgios should have cruised through this match if results were determined on talent alone. That is because Kyrgios is breathtakingly gifted, and I don’t use that word figuratively—when he pulls off one of his flat forehands that easily surpass 100+ miles per hour out of absolutely nowhere, the reaction from the crowd is one of sheer disbelief. Audible gasps. Not appreciation, not excitement, but disbelief. His forehand is virtually devoid of any body movement. Slap. He barely bends his knees when he serves before that whip of a right arm smashes one 135 up the T.
He makes it all look comically easy. He can beat world-class players while putting forth the effort of a too-cool-for-school middle schooler. And that was the mood he was in for the first hour and a half on Thursday.
The players traded nine straight holds before Kyrgios ran into a spot of bother serving at 4-5. At deuce, he barely moved his feet and buried a shot into the net. On the ensuing break and set point for Herbert, Kyrgios missed his first serve then took nothing off his second—he tends to do this, apparently thinking (hoping?) he won’t screw up twice in a row, or maybe just out of mere boredom. The result was his seventh double fault of the set and someway, somehow, he managed to drop the first set 6-4.
That’s when things devolved into the downright bizarre. Sensing his waning effort and swelling disinterest, and frustrated that their earnest cheers of encouragement were having precisely zero effect on Kyrgios, the crowd began to boo his ill-advised swats at returns and his general woe-is-me attitude. Kyrgios responded by pointing his finger to his ear, egging them on. He would go on to say that he loves getting booed. I still can’t decide whether I think he was being sarcastic.
At one point while Kyrgios was down a break in the second set, a heckler yelled at him: “Just leave, we want Genie,” referring to Eugenie Bouchard, who was set to play next on Court 17. “Well, you’ll never have her,” he quipped back without missing a beat.
A quick aside: say what you want about Kyrgios, but man is he quick-witted and often downright hilarious. In his post-match press conference, he was asked his strengths as a tennis player and responded without a hint of a smile: “My unbelievable movement, my returns … and my mental strength.” The entire room burst into laughter.
Back to the tennis, which felt like anything but the main attraction today. His effort—and it’s generous to even call it that—was so poor at one point that umpire Mo Lahyani walked over to his chair and gave him what appeared to be a pep talk. (This, of course, is strictly forbidden. The USTA said Lahyani was merely asking if he needed to see the trainer, but Roger Federer was among many who thought it was completely inappropriate).
At that point, his chances for the match seem doomed. He was down a set and a break, generally disinterested and uncomfortably hot. And then, with little warning but a generous assist from Herbert, whose level dropped significantly, it all turned around. He broke Herbert while the Frenchman was serving for the second set, won the tiebreaker and dropped just three more games in the next two sets. In the end he earned a 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-0 win and a date with a certain Roger Federer in the third round.
Often times tennis matches, especially in early stages of tournaments, fly by in a blur. A break here, a break there, a come on, an occasional racket smash. They fade from memory because you weren’t ever really emotionally invested. I cannot express how much this was not the case on Thursday afternoon. I was legitimately drained when it came to an end. The match evoked more emotions from the crowd than a Richard Linklater movie: excitement, anger, disbelief, humor. It simply had it all; he is the sport’s premier entertainer, and it’s not close.
I’ll need a few days to know exactly how I feel about today and about him, but a few things are already clear. Do I find his antics charming? Honestly, yes, more so than I’d like to admit. (That being said, the Twitter beefs with journalists and former players are not a good look.) Would Kyrgios’s on-court results improve with a change in mentality? Surely. Is he a lost cause, as so many are quick to proclaim? I’d hope not.
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison because I’m not a world-class athlete, but Kyrgios and I are virtually the same age, and I definitely don’t feel my demeanor is the same today as it will be in, say, three years. People change and people mature and they do so at different times in their lives, often with little or no warning signs. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Kyrgios literally wakes up one day and decides to go about things a different way.
It is impossible to predict when—or if—he’ll turn it around in a single match. Why would it be any different with his career?