“Kyrgios could be so good if he wanted to be”
“Kyrgios could be so good if he wanted to be.”
— A text I sent this morning.
I wonder how many times that, or a similar message, has been sent among tennis-watching friends. Undoubtedly, the answer is too many times.
The enigmatic, world-class tennis player is known equally for his undeniable talent and unpredictable behavior.
Nick Kyrgios’ opening match at Wimbledon 2021 is emblematic of his career. The tall Aussie began the roller-coaster of a match by winning the first set against the in-form Frenchman Ugo Humbert. Kyrgios proceeded to drop the two following sets, before blazing to a 6-1 fourth set victory. The fifth set, knotted at 3-3, was suspended due to Wimbledon’s odd 11pm curfew rule. The two would have to wait to complete the match. Morning arrived with an injury scare for Kyrgios after slipping on the grass (The grass is making its presence known this year. Serena Williams and Adrian Mannarino both conspicuously retired from matches the previous day due to similar slips.), before using his powerful serve to finish Humbert off, 9-7 in the fifth.
The five-set, two-day match forced me to reckon with my own thoughts of Nick Kyrgios. His ability to beat talents like Rafa Nadal while also finding a way to blame inexcusable losses on wanting to play Pokemon Go has created a controversial figure. Controversy is inherently provocative. Most in the tennis world, and those who are tennis-adjacent, have an opinion on the player and person.
This brings my thoughts back to my text from this morning — “Kyrgios could be so good if he wanted to be.” What does this actually mean? It’s obvious that it’s a comment on Kyrgios’ talent and his inconsistency. But what do I know about his aspirations? What makes me think he doesn’t want to be great?
Is it fair of me to question his desire? Because, of course he wants to win — that is the point of playing a professional sport. It is why any professional athlete practices and then tries to prove their worth on the playing field/court. Regular people (like myself) have the ability to play for fun. We’re not good enough for a win or loss to truly matter. Conversely, Wimbledon is not fun. It’s a historic championship played once-a-year (barring a pandemic) with a goal of finding a winner and taking advantage of the global sports industrial complex. The 256 men and women at Wimbledon are playing for money, possibly pride, but mostly money. That’s it; and that’s okay.
But we still question the desire of players like Kyrgios. The inconsistency confounds us. I assume we care because it’s right in front of us. A deft, dominating set will be immediately followed by an error-filled brash and blunderous one. The audience is then left to wonder how the same player produced both performances. It’s framed for us as a disappointment rather than solely interesting. It’s fair to question the inconsistency, but let’s not become lost in that question. Let’s celebrate the intrigue. Kyrgios is a character in the larger show of professional tennis in a time lacking showmanship.
The individuality of tennis has been consumed by the hegemony of three of the greatest players ever: Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, and Roger Federer. They have been so good, for so long, that nobody else matters. We’ve grown so accustomed to their domination that we no longer can find beauty in it — what was once a religious experience has become normal. This not only speaks to the collective greatness of the three, but also the banal state tennis currently encompasses. Eyebrows are now only raised when one of the three loses. Unfortunately, this has made it harder to appreciate prolific young players like Sascha Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and, yes, Nick Kyrgios. No matter how well they play, they’re compared to an incomparable level of greatness. Because these players can’t be “The Big Three” we find ways to nit-pick them. Complaining about inconsistency, attitudes, and a lack of love for tennis has become the new “get off my lawn.”
This is a situation reminiscent of post-Jordan basketball. The NBA tried filling a void that was impossible to fill. Dozens of players were likened to the greatness of Michael Jordan. It wasn’t fair. Many of those players are now deemed failures simply because they didn’t live up to an unachievable standard. Kobe Bryant and Lebron James found their way. DeShawn Stevenson, Felipe Lopez, Harold Miner, etc. had varying levels of success but are ultimately looked at as disappointments.
How can tennis not make the same mistakes? It would be devastating to lose such a talented generation. If there was an easy and single answer, there wouldn’t be a need to write this. Less cliched, click-baity lists would be helpful. More of an appreciation of the entertainment players like Nick Kyrgios bring would be advantageous too. But, am I missing the point? The answer to the problems of tennis cannot come as easy as, “be more thoughtful.” Maybe tennis is better off if John McEnroe has something to complain about — it lacks humanity, but probably gains eyeballs.
We’ve learned there can’t be a full appreciation of success without the understanding of failure.
In tennis, this manifests itself as the highs felt after watching an incredible winner contrasted with the lows following dumbfounding misses. That is the Kyrgios mantra — he makes the most of it. There is not another player who can compete with his ability to match an amazing winner with a dubious mis-hit. Ultimately, he wants to win; he just expresses this desire with jaw-dropping attempts at the unbelievable and an occasional petulance after both wins and losses. Maybe as he grows as a player, our ability to appreciate his unpredictability will mature. Hopefully we won’t look back at his career with a sense of unfulfillment, but more of an appreciation of his unconventional flair. Hopefully.