MELBOURNE, Australia — Nick Kyrgios says he’s starting to feel like an old soul. Ahead of his Friday night (AEDT) third-round showdown with US Open champion Dominic Thiem, he’s used the term “veteran” despite being just 25 years of age, and even admitted to craving a glass of red wine following his epic five-set, second-round win over seeded Frenchman Ugo Humbert.
It’s a contrast to the Kyrgios of even two years ago. Remember when, in 2019, he was spotted by journalists at a Wimbledon pub the night before facing Rafael Nadal? Or when he was overheard cursing himself for “playing FIFA until 3am” at Queen’s Club in the same year?
His serendipitous 12-month break from tennis in 2020 has clearly done wonders for his perspective. After being the catalyst for a number of players to help raise millions of dollars for bushfire relief during last year’s Australian Open, Kyrgios settled himself at home, in Australia’s capital Canberra, while the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world.
While the likes of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and others flouted social distancing protocols during the now infamous Adria Tour, organised by Djokovic in June, Kyrgios became a most unlikely voice of reason, describing the decision to go ahead with the exhibition and the associated celebrations as a “boneheaded” move. He became one of the most talked about athletes of 2020 all without touching a racquet.
Kyrgios has clearly come to terms with his newfound status as the sport’s social conscience. His news conferences are becoming must-watch TV, and not for the explosive reasons we’ve seen in the past.
“At this stage in my career, I feel old,” he said following the win over Humbert. “I just want to have a glass of red wine, man, after a match like that. I don’t know. … I’m playing better, hopefully. I’m going to have to play better again against Dominic Thiem, that’s for sure.”
He’s still brash and prickly on the court and struggles to contain his emotions at times, but with the media Kyrgios has become measured and thoughtful — even magnanimous. There are also touches of vulnerability and honesty rarely seen before.
“Well, as you know, the media doesn’t hold back on me,” he said. “You know … I felt like there was a lot of expectation on me, not playing for a year and coming back.
“I wasn’t expecting too much of myself, but of course when I’m match point down second-round exit, I was almost afraid. I was afraid to come into this room, you know, go to my Airbnb and just read about it and take it all in, take all the negativity in.
“That’s what I was thinking about … I don’t know how I got out of [facing two match points].”
Following his first-round win earlier this week, and with the final call for questions coming through, Kyrgios was pressed by a foreign member of the press for him to comment on Djokovic’s pre-tournament declaration that he didn’t respect Kyrgios “off the court”.
“It’s a strange one for me. I read [Djokovic’s] comments. He said he doesn’t respect me off the court. I’m like, it actually would make complete sense to me if he was like, ‘I don’t respect the guy on the court’, because I understand if he doesn’t agree with some of my antics on the court that I’ve done in the past,” Kyrgios said at the time.
“I’m not quite sure how you can’t respect me off the court. I feel like I’ve gone about things extremely well, especially during the pandemic.”
And Kyrgios was — as is slowly becoming the norm — probably correct in his assessment. Away from tennis is where Kyrgios has been doing his best work of late. From his NK Foundation which works with underprivileged kids, to his almost clandestine charitable work during the pandemic when he delivered much-needed groceries to Australian families who needed it, to the mammoth fundraising effort for bushfire relief at last year’s tournament, Kyrgios should be respected and heralded for his off-court endeavours.
But some critics still can’t stomach Kyrgios the tennis player; frustrating, loud, profane — a television sound producer’s worst nightmare.
During his win over Humbert, on what Kyrgios has described as his favourite stadium in the world, John Cain Arena, he was constantly picked up by the court microphones cursing, criticising and critiquing himself — and what he claimed to be a faulty automatic net cord.
Despite the verbal angst, he’s extremely comfortable in John Cain Arena — a king in his castle. On more than one occasion he was allowed to get away with some foul language by chair umpire Marijana Veljovic, a luxury not afforded to many.
And the crowd feeds off it. At times the place is an animal house — this week was no exception — and Kyrgios has become a master of pushing the right buttons to get the predominantly young, fervent crowds behind him.
In what world does a half-full stadium during a pandemic sound the way it does when Kyrgios is playing? The television broadcast cameras were shaking from the noise of spectators jumping up and down as Kyrgios orchestrated one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent history. Veljovic must have been close to losing her voice from the number of times she had to ask the crowd to be quiet.
Kyrgios is still fragile — we’ve seen it before. From blistering on-court performances one match, to a meltdown not long after — and a standoffish media performance to boot — it doesn’t take much for him to unravel.
But on Friday night against world No. 3 Thiem, Kyrgios will once again be able to lean on the lunacy that often is John Cain Arena. The Austrian — US Open winner from last year — is somewhat of an anti-Kyrgios: methodical, calm, structured. Interestingly, he secured his breakthrough Slam win on a silent Arthur Ashe Stadium last year, where the atmosphere was the polar opposite from what is normally presented by the raucous crowds at Flushing Meadows.
Thiem won’t have faced such a multi-dimensional challenge like Kyrgios on John Cain for some time, and it’s something Kyrgios could leverage. Imagine — knocking off the world No. 3 after a year off in which his off-court stocks soared like few others? It would truly signal the arrival of Kyrgios 2.0.