The Kurious Mister Kyrgios

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is this young man, with such prodigious talent, really thinking?

PERHAPS NEVER BEFORE has the game of tennis seen this degree of contradiction between prodigious talent and perplexing behavior.

That statement may bring to mind the likes of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe who displayed their own versions of electrifying play and exasperating antics. Yet, neither of them possessed the power, speed, or athleticism of Nick Kyrgios. And as hotheaded as Connors and McEnroe could be—to the dismay and sometimes disgust of crowds—neither exhibited the weird explosions and myriad implosions that bring regular ruin to Kyrgios’s remarkable fusion of talents.

It is unsettling to watch such tantalizing play sullied by such an array of bizarre moods, rants, and behavior. The incessant mumbling. Denial and defensiveness bordering on paranoia. A pig pen at his chair. Violent outbursts of physical destruction. Crude eruptions from a venomous tongue. Criminal glares at line judges. Conduct beyond the known limits of impoliteness. And outright odd strategic decisions at the worst possible times.

Although not on purpose, Kyrgios seems to mock how much we are willing to tolerate in the name of professional sports. As multi-millionaire gladiators are permitted to unleash whatever torrent of behavior they feel inclined to under the rigors of their sport, lowly umpires and line judges are obliged to hold their tongues. Fines after the fact don’t seem to make any difference. In the case of tennis, maybe a levy of several forfeited points or a whole game would be more efficacious and better suited to the moment. Why punish cringing crowds and humiliated officials? Why not reel dignity back into the game right then and there by putting the onus on the players where it belongs?

Of course, Kyrgios is not the only behavioral blight in the men’s or women’s game, but his antics are at times so wild and worrisome that they underscore a glaring sore spot in professional tennis. Where is the boundary of decorum? What will determine when it is reached and exceeded? And what then?

Hatred on the court is never a good sign

Meanwhile is the harm all this does to the pristine nature of tennis. A rectangle, one ball, two players, four points, and the beautiful sound of a racquet making contact with a tennis ball. Fortunately, none of this has changed. What has changed is the speed, power, and competitiveness with which they all happen, and the massive sums of money driving them. The game itself resides behind a thickening veil of dollars, endorsements, celebrities, electronic ads, public address announcements, silly crowd contests, and music that—while welcome by many—is way too loud. Pleasant diversions are one thing. Deafening, deadening distractions are another.

None of this is the fault of Kyrgios. It is simply the game he has grown up in. At the same time, his demeanor and antics reflect the business and lifestyle state of tennis, raising the question whether they will prevail over the purity of the game itself. Nowhere was this question more evident than in Kyrgios’s semifinal match against Roger Federer at the Miami Open. In their highly anticipated meeting, Federer was continuing a remarkable resurgence while Kyrgios, 14 years younger, was playing his best ever tennis. Kyrgios did not conquer the king that day almost because some force of tennis fate could not let it happen. But it almost did, perhaps to tease the players, the public, and the ATP. What a tease it was, too, over three tight-as-could-be-tie-breaker sets full of scintillating shots, nerve-wrenching lead changes, and diametrically opposite displays of gamesmanship.

Federer’s finesse, precision, and composure under pressure were so breathtaking that for a while they obliterated the veil of distractions mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, Kyrgios showed why he is in a category almost by himself in terms of strokes that come so naturally, unfold so fluidly, and sizzle with such precision across the net. Although Federer outdueled him, Kyrgios was often the better player. The only thing standing in his way was that strange foe of so many great physical athletes—himself.

As unsavory as Kyrgios’s emotional displays can be, even more distressing are the frequent psychological collapses that do irreparable damage to his splendid play. Can you imagine his weapons under the command of a champion mindset?

He has the talent and concentration, but can he consistently command them?

After being rightfully accused of tanking and quitting and not caring on court during his career, Kyrgios says he is now competing for each point and that it is making a difference, enabling him to inch closer to the top players and vie for bigger victories. We may indeed see that happen under the right circumstances, but it likely will not happen under most circumstances because the safeguard—and ultimate demand—of great tennis is that it entails more than jaw-dropping physical skills, which is exactly why Federer, even at age 35, won that day in Miami.

Tennis shares with golf the nuance that more time is spent in the game than playing the game: preparing before serving, waiting for the serve, getting back into position after points, switching sides, toweling off, questioning calls, regrouping mentally from bad shots, thinking strategically, coping with critical points, and more. Having to endure all this in addition to actually hitting the ball, and having to do it all alone calls for a single caliber of mental rigor, the ability to contain and command it, and a knowledge of how to navigate it without collapsing under self-imposed pressure.

When athletes refer to being in the zone, this is the place they are talking about. It is a delicate inner chamber of self that is always under attack yet forever invulnerable—except when it succumbs to the lure of mental imposters.

So rare is the ability—in life and in sports—to sustain this mystery of self-mastery that if Kyrgios were to manage it, he would not only transform himself but carry the game of tennis back to great heights. It is obviously the only other thing he needs to learn about playing the game.

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