Sporting Life

Education of Kyrgios still consists of many tough lessons

Nick Kyrgios tosses his racket during his four-set loss to Andy Murray in the first round of the US Open yesterday.
Nick Kyrgios tosses his racket during his four-set loss to Andy Murray in the first round of the US Open yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Welcome to Cirque Du Kyrgios. Where he is clown, acrobat and tightrope walker. Occasionally he plays tennis.

When he does, for a point here and there against Andy Murray on Tuesday, he hits you in the face with his talent. Then he returns to self-distraction.

Nick Kyrgios mutters. He pouts. He plays a drop shot of inferior IQ. He hits a low backhand volley borrowed from the McEnroe MagicHands Academy. He slams a forehand without moving his feet.

His concentration is as brittle as crystal and he has the attention span of a man who only watches trailers. He is talent in quest of discipline: You can find the latter but never buy the former.

The match is only four games old.

If you woke up in Singapore yesterday to be entertained, you can't ask for a refund. If you came for tennis, it is another matter. This man is spectacle and spectacular.

He talks to the umpire. He swears about the crowd. He leaps for a lob which he only touches. He smiles. He should do that more often because its wattage could light up the stadium. Then he complains about the lights. Maybe Muhammad Ali likes his endless lip.

Years ago I was sitting on the old Court No.1 at Wimbledon watching John McEnroe in his last days. Two reporters, later to be revealed as tabloid fellows, sat in front of me. I was scribbling, their notebooks lay untouched. Then McEnroe surged towards the umpire, alive with indignation, and they began writing.

Some people also come just to see the Kyrgios show. Some wish to see him fail and disintegrate. Some arrive to check if he's growing up into greatness. Yesterday he lost and he was still trending on Twitter.

There's a passing similarity between the lefty McEnroe and the testy Kyrgios, including vocabulary: Yesterday, for instance, the American called the Australian a "bonehead". Both also fidget like pickpockets in a police station.

McEnroe had a book written on him called Rebel Without Applause. Another time, in homage to the late actor James Dean, he was dressed in an overcoat and photographed for a Nike poster which was titled Rebel With A Cause. Kyrgios just rebels against everything tennis expects of him. He's a poster boy for the wrong decision.

He nonchalantly walks up to the net, as if considering a coffee break, and puts a smash away. He hits shots between his legs - with his back to Murray and once even facing him. He slouches in his chair, naps and when awake appraises himself on the big screen. As if to confirm that every camera is on him. He's just an under-pressure, slightly narcissistic young man who perhaps is not as tough as he wants us to believe he is.

Kyrgios, at times, isn't doing anything right. Not focusing before a point. Not forgetting the previous point. Not staying in a point. Not finishing a point without a soliloquy.

Still he takes Murray to four sets!

When Kyrgios actually wanders back into the tennis match, he's scary. His serve whistles, his forehand stings. His hands are quick, his feet fast, his strength indisputable. He wins a 26-shot rally just to tell you he can hit 13 sensible shots without self-combusting. He once saves a set point with a few muscular strokes and a drop shot of effrontery. Somehow he never seems impressed with himself, the game, or everyone else.

His racket flies out of his hand, is thrown at a ball, is bounced, banged and cartwheels in the air. His concentration is as brittle as crystal and he has the attention span of a man who only watches trailers. He is talent in quest of discipline: You can find the latter but never buy the former.

Kyrgios has the gift of making it hard to like him. At the press conference, he says: "Bernard (Tomic), he's harmless. I don't really understand where he gets this reputation from, or where I get it from at all. We show emotion out there. We might not be the most usual tennis players you see. Somehow we got this reputation that's just ridiculous."

If he takes all this energy and diverts it into tennis, if he buys into what made his mentor, Lleyton Hewitt, a great player, then Kyrgios will be electrifying. Yesterday his compatriot, Thanasi Kokkinakis, said this of the concentrated Hewitt: "He's always fighting, every point, every practice session."

So on we go, trying to interpret a young man who has some clues carved into himself. On Kyrgios' right arm and hand are two tattoos. The first says "Time is running out", the second insists "Inspire others". The irony, currently, is lost on him.

Into his hair is cut a jagged line which looks vaguely like an electrocardiogram - as if he's sworn to give tennis an irregular heartbeat. Or maybe, if you look again, he's just telling us he operates on a different wavelength?

In the continuing public education of Kyrgios, yesterday was a short yet punishing chapter. The US Open is just starting and he's already what he hates to be - irrelevant. Tennis' great acts are slowly unveiling themselves in New York but his circus has packed its tent.

His racket flies out of his hand, is thrown at a ball, is bounced, banged and cartwheels in the air.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Education of Kyrgios still consists of many tough lessons'. Print Edition | Subscribe