For all the media attention Nick Kyrgios has received since his career-launching defeat of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago, it seems surprising that he only won his first ATP title last week in Marseille. Constantly touted as a Grand Slam “dangerman” and one of the leaders of the yet-to-truly-emerge next generation, he is still yet to grace the top 20.
So why was the 20-year-old able to win the Open 13 Province now? How was he able to dispatch Richard Gasguet, Tomas Berdych, and Marin Cilic so clinically? And how did he go about it in such calm, collected, and un-Kyrgios-like fashion?
We have always known Kyrgios has had a fearsome serve, ever since he blew 37 aces straight past Rafael Nadal during 2014 Wimbledon. Yet his returning has always needed work. It has been improving steadily over the last 18 months and Marseille saw the culmination of this work.
Against Nadal in 2014, Kyrgios managed to win just 23% of first serve return points and backed that up with 41% on the second serve. Bearing in mind that this was his finest result of that year, those are really poor returning stats. Of the players who played over 40 matches that year, a 23% win on the first serve return would have placed him second last, only behind Ivo Karlovic. It is a totally identical scenario for the second serve return winners. Sensational victory? Yes. Returning master class? Far from it.
Kyrgios’ 2015 average showed minimal improvement, but improvement nonetheless. The first serve return points won was up to 25% whilst there was a 5% improvement on his second serve points won, up to 46%. In 2015, though, this weakness was uncovered more as players began to get to grips with his big-hitting, big-serving style, and may be a serious reason as to why he had a relatively forgettable year.
However, in Marseille he was able to take these figures up to a world class level. His first serve return points won stood at a 31% average across his five matches, which would have ranked him 8th on the average list for 2015. It may only be his statistics during this one tournament, but it is a marked improvement on anything we’ve seen from him before.
If the first serve statistics are good, the second serve return winners are off the charts. The figure of 59% stands at 3% higher than anyone managed to average during 2015. In France, Kyrgios managed to play his return games without fear, consequently striking fear into his various opponents as they knew they simply could not hit a lackluster second serve as the Aussie would capitalise.
The challenge now revolves around the sustainability of this level. The problem with his return game is that when it is on form it is ludicrously dangerous, but when it is off it can be really poor. Luckily though, the signs so far are good. In Dubai, the lowest percentage on second serve return points won for Kyrgios was 58%, and that was in the semifinal against Stan Wawrinka, where he had to withdraw with a back injury. If he can keep this exceptional level of returning up, he makes himself a more rounded and ultimately far more dangerous package.
Nick Kyrgios’ serve is less of a surprise given that we already know about its prowess. He kindly demonstrated that when he pummeled 37 aces past Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. Nevertheless, he did not drop a game all week in Marseille and faced more break points in his first round encounter in Dubai with Martin Klizan than he did all tournament in France.
What he has improved upon is how he builds on his booming serve, and this comes very much with a more intelligent game. Instead of simply relying on his serve as he used to, he is using it as a platform with which to win the point. His first serve points won was up at 87% in Marseille, sensationally, 4% higher than the day he put 37 aces past Nadal. What does this tell us about his game?
It tells us that he has improved both the quality and consistency of his groundstrokes. This is fairly obvious though – you only need to watch Kyrgios play to see that he is a human highlight reel. No one on the ATP Tour hits a cross court groundstroke quite as breathtakingly as he does. He utilizes the full length of the court, generating incredible amounts of power off both wings to simply have, in my opinion, the most potent and devastating cross-court shot. Coupled with a deft drop-shot and a wickedly accurate looping forehand, he is proving incredibly tactical as a thinker and creator on court.
The On-Court Demeanour
The first thing to say about this is that it is very early days. Anyone who has heard of Nick Kyrgios knows that he comes with a history of on-court escapades. From answering the phone on court to over-the-line sledging of Stan Wawrinka, Kyrgios is building quite a reputation for himself. Often he is seen getting involved with the crowd. He tends to leave his emotions on the court – often through the use of audible obscenities – and is generally finding new ways to get himself fined and disgruntle more traditional tennis fans.
The reason I am mentioning all of this is that none of it was evident in Marseilles or Dubai. Across nine matches – (admittedly I didn’t watch every minute of every match) – the only real evidence I came across was one audible obscenity in his first encounter with Tomas Berdych. Whilst he would normally do nothing about it, this time he instantly covered his mouth, potentially demonstrating immediate remorse for his actions. Something I have never seen before and something I never expected to see.
Kyrgios’ new-found graciousness seems to have extended further. Against Berdych in Dubai he encouraged the Czech to challenge a line call, which ultimately gave Berdych an ace. An excellent show of sportsmanship, but not one the controversy-hunting media wanted to jump on. No one seemed to want to show the resident “bad boy” showing his genuine good heart.
So what is the reason for this “new Nick Kyrgios”? Is it simply a case of him growing up and showing some signs of maturity? Is it increased guidance from his new Davis Cup captain, Lleyton Hewitt? Could it possibly be he has taken inspiration from ever-blossoming friendship with Andy Murray?
Nick himself seems to be attributing it to a shift in his mindset.
“There are greater things happening in the world than me playing a tennis match. I’m happy I’m playing well but at the same time If I lose, I go home, it’s a win-win situation. I had a couple of things last year off the court that made me look at the world a little different, and I’m enjoying my tennis a little bit more now.”
Emotional stability has always been the largest hurdle facing the talented Aussie and if his words are to be believed, then he is certainly on the right path, even if he is still some distance from the final destination.
All in all it feels like the pieces of the Nick Kyrgios jigsaw are starting to fall into place. The four corners have always been there, just waiting for the other pieces to connect them up, and slowly but surely they are beginning to do so. No doubt there will be more pieces that simply don’t fit, but as time goes by more and more fragments are slotting into their correct position. Who knows, maybe one day the whole picture will come together and Nick Kyrgios will lift a Grand Slam trophy?