Lure of world No. 1 holds no fascination for laconic Kyrgios

"Becoming No. 1 doesn't really excite me at all, to be honest. It's not something I wish that I was. Whether I am 13 in the world, 1 in the world, 20 in the world, doesn't really bother me at all.

"It's just tennis."

And this is just Nick Kyrgios.

Deadpan dude. Blase bro. Has this ability to make his words sound like a shrug. Is 21, provocative, personable, and has now folded his 193cm frame like an accordion into a chair in the International Premier Tennis League players' lounge at the Indoor Stadium in Singapore.

You know Kyrgios? Colossal talent with the attention span of a circling, bored goldfish? Yeah, yeah, say what you want, there's not an insult, a rebuke, a put-down that we haven't written which he hasn't heard.

"I don't really care, to be honest. I got people telling me what I should do, how I should act, every day, and I don't really care."

People ask in tennis: When's this kid going to get serious? When's he going to find that balance between extroverted actor and disciplined chaser of greatness. Even Rafael Nadal says the Aussie could be No. 1, which is when Kyrgios says that No. 1 doesn't excite him.


Natural talent catapulted Nick Kyrgios to the world No. 13 spot, but the Australian has not had a coach for two years, saying: “I don’t need one”. PHOTO: REUTERS

So why play tennis?

"Because unfortunately we all need money, don't we?"

Surely you play to win a Grand Slam?

"It would be fun, I guess."

UNUSUAL VIEWPOINT

At the end of the day, my perspective on the whole thing is very good. I don't really take myself too seriously. At the end of the day, we're just playing tennis. It doesn't really matter.

NICK KYRGIOS , explaining where tennis fits in his interpretation of life's overall context.

Kyrgios, who won three titles and a suspension this year, earned a No. 13 ranking and thousands in fines, is very polite during this brief chat. Didn't even swear once. And who knows if his soft-spoken answers are part of a calculated performance in indifference, but his theme never shifts. This is just tennis. Not some grand passion but his prosaic livelihood, not a serious matter but a show.

When asked what he, a competitor under scrutiny, learnt about himself this year, he replies:

"At the end of the day my perspective on the whole thing is very good. I don't really take myself too seriously. At the end of the day we're just playing tennis. It doesn't really matter. There are issues and other things in the world that I think about. It's just tennis, it's so small in the scheme of things."

If you're searching for penitence from Kyrgios, it's not going to happen. If you want introspection, forget it. If you're looking for a romantic tale, look elsewhere. He's not like other athletes, who articulate their labour and spell out their obsession and chronicle their hardship. It means the 10 minutes 38 seconds I have with him is fascinating and amusing because he's an original, simply unwilling to be as worshipful of his craft as anyone wants him to be. For him, shrug, it's just tennis.

Athletes often speak of their love of a game, of childhood dreams and first rackets, of heroes found and stadiums visited. But Kyrgios? Only he, in some unique karmic misunderstanding, could be in love with a game he's in fact not playing.

"I love," he says "everything about (basketball), the sounds, the ball, the court, the atmosphere." Yes, fine, but come on, Nick, what do you love about tennis, which is what you play with a kinetic, effortless, gifted beauty when you're in the mood?

"I love what you can get out of the game, everything that comes with it. I like the money, I like the lifestyle. I am absolutely blessed to be able to play a sport that gives you great rewards. I travel to new places, meet new people, and see the world. I am incredibly lucky to do what I am doing. I love what you can get out of it, you can inspire a lot of people, you can help a lot of people after you finish."

He's glib and he's nonchalant and his answers arrive as directly as his serves.

Does he seek advice?

"Naah, not really, I don't really focus too much on my game."

You don't talk to anybody?

"I haven't had a coach for two years."

Why?

"Because I don't need one."

Maybe he sees my bewilderment because he very gently tries to calm me down. "Dude, it's just tennis. It's just a game."

But you've got incredible talent.

"Who cares? There are issues in the world, like who cares. It's just tennis. I say an 'F-word' and it's like I am a bad person, like dude, there are bigger issues in the world."

You don't think on court you should be careful about what you say?

"What am I saying? I swear, that's it. Do you not swear?"

A lot.

"Exactly."

But there's no one watching me.

"Only because I can hit a ball over the net doesn't mean I should be raising someone's kid," he says, neatly paraphrasing what Charles Barkley the basketballer once uttered in a Nike ad.

Of course, life - and being a role model, and fame, and his behaviour - is far more complicated than Kyrgios makes it, but the conversation is almost over. Earlier I'd asked if he - who has the actor's lust for the great stage - enjoys the IPTL, for it is tennis as an edgy, raucous team sport, and he says yes. But when it's suggested that it suits his personality, he demurs.

"I am actually very quiet off the court. I don't really talk to many people, I have a very small circle. I literally talk to my girlfriend and my family and that's it."

Then tennis' playful punk, its petulant puzzle, gets up, shakes hands and ambles away. A hunched rebel who hasn't yet found his cause.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Lure of world No. 1 holds no fascination for laconic Kyrgios'. Print Edition | Subscribe