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Is Nick Kyrgios Still the Next Big Thing?

After six weeks out with an elbow injury, Nick Kyrgios has made a solid return to the ATP tour. The World No. 24 reached the fourth round at the Miami Open and the quarter finals in Houston last week.

It seems like the talented yet divisive Australian has been around forever, but Boris Becker recently pointed out that he is still just 22 years of age. Big things were expected of Kyrgios after he shocked the world with a stunning victory over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014.

Expectations were so high that fans now tend to view him as a bit of an under-achiever. It would be harsh to say that he hasn’t lived up to the hype, however, given everything he has achieved at such a young age.

The fact that he is still yet to seriously challenge for a Major has frustrated fans and experts who had earmarked him as the future of the sport. His knack for attracting negative publicity hasn’t helped him either. A string of code violations, unsportsmanlike behaviour, tanking and run-ins with other players quickly turned Kyrgios into the media’s go to “bad boy”.

If you google him, you’re unlikely to find many positive articles about the Australian. Instead, you will either find articles that describe him as a wasted talent or the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the game today- the modern tennis brat.

Although many fans are losing patience with him, a quick look at his achievements to date shows that he is by no means a flop. Kyrgios has been ranked as high as No. 13 in the world, won 4 ATP tour titles, made a Masters 1000 final and reached the quarter finals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

A closer look at these achievements reveals that Kyrgios took down some big names in the process. He won his maiden ATP title in Marseille with wins over Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic and his impressive run to the final of the Cincinnati Masters included victories over David Goffin, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer.

Any 22 year old not named Nick Kyrgios would receive universal acclaim for these achievements. Most players won’t achieve that kind of success over the course of an entire career.

Now here’s the bad news.

Kyrgios is still yet to pass the third round of the French Open and the US Open and while he has had some success in other ATP events, he has generally underperformed at the Grand Slams. Last year he exited the Australian and French Opens in the 2nd round and he also suffered two first round exits at Wimbledon and the US Open. The previous year he was solid but still a little disappointing in the majors, reaching the third round in three of them and the fourth at Wimbledon.

It’s fair to say that Kyrgios is capable of much more at the majors, especially when you consider that he made the Quarter Finals at Wimbledon and the Australian open as a teenager.

If you viewed these stats in isolation, you would probably assume that he hasn’t progressed as a player at all. If anything, it looks like he has gone backwards.

Make no mistake though, Kyrgios was extremely impressive in patches last season, making the Final of the China Open and Cincinnati Masters, the Semi-finals of the Mexican Open and Miami Masters and the Quarter Finals at Indian Wells. He recorded wins against Novak Djokovic (twice), Rafael Nadal, Alexander Zverev (three times) and David Goffin (twice) at these tournaments. He also had an epic battle with Roger Federer that many considered the match of the year, falling just short in three tie-break sets- 7-6 6-7 7-6.

He continued his fine form at the start of 2018, winning the Brisbane International and making a fourth round appearance at his home slam where he lost a close match against Grigor Dimitrov.

Kyrgios has all of the tools to reach the very top of the sport and take home multiple Grand Slams. His serve is his most consistent weapon and when it’s on, he can take a set away from anyone in the blink of an eye. Crucially, he is often able to serve his way out of trouble when under pressure. His forehand and backhand are both formidable strokes, although his backhand can be a little flat at times. His net game isn’t perfect, but he is competent enough to put away the easy volleys that his serve sets up so perfectly.

All of these attributes make Kyrgios a great player but his greatest strength is his self-belief. He performs better when the lights shine brightest. When he plays the very best in the game, he rises to the occasion, embracing the spotlight and the enormous challenge in front of him rather than shying away from it. He’s done this since he was 19.

This is what separates him from other players coming through. Sure, there are a lot of players out there with talent to burn, but few can cope with the pressure of performing on the biggest stage.

Countless players and commentators have described Kyrgios as a World No. 1 in waiting, including Rafael Nadal who said “Nick Kyrgios is already at the top. He is a player who has unbelievable potential. He has to focus on himself and he can become world number one and win a grand slam”. Nadal’s coach Carlos Moya agrees and when asked about Kyrgios groundstrokes he said “he has everything”.

Consistency has definitely been Kyrgios’ biggest issue. At his very best, he is capable of beating anyone in the world, but he has a bizarre tendency to struggle against some of the “easy-beats” on the tour. It’s a common problem for a lot of youngsters, but Kyrgios seems to experience particularly extreme highs and lows.

His record against some of the greats is impressive. He managed to win his first matches against Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. He has a 2-3 record against Nadal, a 1-1 record with Federer and leads Djokovic 2-0 head-to-head. In fact, he beat Djokovic twice within the space of two weeks.

On the flip side though, he has lost to a number of players that could only be described as journeymen during the same period, including Ruben Bemelmans, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, John Millman and Daniel Brands.

You could say these are just the usual blips you would expect from a player who only turned pro in 2013, but there is a clear pattern emerging.

In the 2015 Madrid Masters, Kyrgios had the tennis world buzzing after beating the great Roger Federer on clay. Two days later, he went down to John Isner. At the Canadian Masters, he dominated then No. 4 Stan Wawrinka. Once again, John Isner spoiled the party, beating Kyrgios in straight sets in the next round.

At the Mexican Open, he dismantled Novak Djokovic in straight sets, losing just 20.5% of his service points. He was eliminated in the next round by Sam Querrey.

So why does Kyrgios look like a world-beater against the greats and then underperform against lesser players? We may already have the answer.

He has said himself that he doesn’t have much of a passion for the game. After his loss to Millman at the US Open, he said that tennis isn’t even his favourite sport and that he has never really devoted himself to the game like other players on tour.

“There are players out there that are more dedicated, that want to get better, that strive to get better every day, the one-percenters. I’m not that guy,” he said.

Maybe this is the reason for his inconsistency against average players and contrasting consistency against the top players. Perhaps he doesn’t really enjoy himself out there unless there is someone on the other side of the net that really motivates him.

Of course, he could have just been making excuses after an embarrassing loss, but his performances suggest that he might be telling the truth.

This would also explain why he has completely checked out of a number of matches. At Wimbledon in 2015, he blatantly threw an entire game against Richard Gasquet. He did the same thing the following year in Shanghai, throwing his match with Mischa Zverev and telling the umpire “Can you call time so I can finish this match and go home?” At the next Shanghai Masters he pulled out of his match with Steve Johnson at the end of the first set despite being uninjured.

When you watch these incidents and his volatile behaviour, it’s hard not to feel that Kyrgios doesn’t really want to be there.

If that is the case, his career could go one of two ways over the next few years.

  • If he doesn’t put in the hard yards and dedicate himself to tennis, he probably won’t win a major, but his talent will keep him in or around the top 20.
  • If he does, there’s no limit to what he could achieve as he has the game and the self-belief to dominate the tour.

Moya summed Kyrgios situation up perfectly when he said “there is no doubt he has the potential to become No.1 in the world. He is one of the very few players that have that potential, but that doesn’t mean he is going to get there.”

It’s hard to know which way his career will go, but if he can learn to love the game, the sky is the limit.

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