July 10, 2020

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Kyrgios out to his idol, not without high points

NEW YORK – Nick Kyrgios is never going to be what people want him to be – out of obstinacy, if nothing else.

He may “settle down” and maximize his significant gifts some day.

He may not. And he won’t do it because you’re outraged that he doesn’t.

The day-in, day-out grind of piling up match wins in 250s and 500s against players who work harder than he does – but don’t have half his ability – and spending hours in the gym may never not bore him.

He may want more than anyone to get up for big, marquee matchups in the biggest stadiums, like his third-round clash with Roger Federer Saturday at the US Open.

And he may well beat himself up more than anyone who criticizes him, when he can’t summon up enough magic to prevail.

Kyrgios knows when he falls short. The fellow who tries to pretend he doesn’t care when things don’t go right, who flat out gives up sometimes, wants to care. He just hasn’t figured out how to yet.

He’s not patient enough to will himself to hang in there when things are looking grim, hopeful his fortunes will improve. He is, at heart, a pessimist and not an optimist.

On Saturday, Kyrgios met the maestro, his idol. And he fell short. Federer defeated him 6-4, 6-1, 7-5 in a match that turned on a game at 3-3 in the first set.

Kyrgios had four break points in that game, which took more than six minutes after these two speed demons took just 15 minutes to play the first five. He couldn’t make the magic happen.

Federer won the first set, rolled through the second set, and survived the third.

“Pressure. You know, got to the business end of the first set, crucial moment. Played a terrible service game. Didn’t make any first serves. Just it was tough. I knew how important that first set was,” Kyrgios said. 

“He loosened up straightaway after that. He started playing some shots that we all know, you know, he can make. All the pressure was off him. He’s an unbelievable frontrunner. When he gets in front, there’s not much you can do.”

Jaw-dropping shot

The highlight of the match, and perhaps the tournament, was a wraparound shot by Federer midway through the third set.

The 37-year-old sprinted from the baseline, and took advantage of the singles net on Arthur Ashe to drill a flat forehand around the outside of the court perimeter for a winner.

It was a showtime shot by his idol that Kyrgios appreciated to the fullest.

But the difference was this: Kyrgios tried to make eye contact with Federer, tried to draw him into the showtime. But the man with 20 major titles is a wise old goat, and he didn’t bite. Even if, underneath that smooth champion’s veneer, he wouldn’t hate being the showtime guy once in awhile.

“Other guys play the shot you’re supposed to hit, and then if you get beat, you’re, like, ‘Maybe I should have hit Nick’s shot.’ Nick goes the other way around,” Federer said. “He hits that shot, but then if he doesn’t win that point, maybe he tells himself, ‘Well, maybe I should have hit a normal shot.’ It just goes the other way around. And he’s very good at doing these shots, too.”

With John Millman looming in the fourth round and a clear path to a potential showdown with Novak Djokovic in the quarters, Federer was all business.

“I definitely think it was a special one, no doubt about it. … And then there was one more in Dubai against Agassi on break point. I was able to flick a ball. I still don’t know how I did it today,” Federer said of the shot against Agassi. “It went for a lob over him. I don’t know. It was just a massive point on top of it, and it was against Andre.”

(Federer was 23 in that match against Agassi, the same age Kyrgios is now. Agassi, stone-faced after that bit of magic, would turn 35 a couple of months later).

Afterwards, some self-awareness

Kyrgios

Putting aside the major blip involving his mid-match ennui against Pierre-Hugues Hebert, Kyrgios has been professional in so many ways during this Slam. 

He’s done all the sponsors’ things he needs to do on social media. Where he was Mr. Two-Word-and-a-smirk” guy in press in Toronto, he was impressive in his press conferences here. 

His respect for the greats in the game is this little opening into who he is. The kid who aspired, who has mad respect for those who do everything right, wants to be that – on some level. But he knows he can’t do it their way. It’s a tug-of-war between good and evil. Sometimes, evil prevails. 

He knows it. You don’t have to inform him.

“(I) was actually as comfortable as as I felt on Ashe before. Especially in the first set I thought I was playing well. Yeah, I mean, he’s played on that court hundreds of times. He’s much more experienced. It didn’t come down to that today. He was way too good,” Kyrgios said.

“Obviously not at my best, but that’s how he makes you play. He makes the court feel really small at times. If you’re not serving well, he takes advantage of it. He was too good.”

What is the Kyrgios career goal?

Some players will say they want to win a Grand Slam, or be top 10 – or No. 1. They’ve probably been saying that since they were kids. Now that they’re out there, they’re still saying it and dreaming of it and working towards it.

This Aussie hasn’t yet figured out what he wants from his career. He only knows that whatever it is, he doesn’t have it yet. Not having a goal, an end game, makes it exponentially harder to plot your course.

If you don’t know what you’re working towards, how can you even take the right path?

“I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied with my career; I think there is a lot more to be done and there is a lot more to be … explored. … But I have been around for about four years now. And I have barely done anything. I think I can do a lot more. As I said, it’s all mental with me, I think. If I want it enough, you know, I have a coaching option, psychology option,” he said. 

“I think there is a lot more things to explore. But, I mean, obviously I want to achieve more in the sport. I don’t think I have done anything.”

“If I want it enough.” That’s still to be determined.

A coaching challenge

If Kyrgios doesn’t have a full-time coach, it’s because he knows himself well enough to know how hard that job is to fill.

Any coach would jump at the opportunity to work with someone who has that kind of talent. And jobs with player who have major title potential are few and far between.

But the reality of coaching is that the “boss” is technically the employee.  It has to be indescribably hard for these coaches to juggle saying what needs to be said as they consider that if that particular player doesn’t want to hear it, they have the power to end the relationship. 

Kyrgios

Not that many coaches have the kind of financial security to risk that, even with the best of intentions. You’d also have to have optimal heart health before undertaking that challenge.

A coach Kyrgios can have control over, a “good cop”, won’t help him much. He knows that.

And at the opposite extreme, the “bad cop” ‘s message won’t get through, either. Because someone barking at the 23-year-old that he needs to get into the gym more, train harder, change this, work on that tactic, may well bring out the contrarian in him.

And, if you try to tinker with the essence of an athlete, what makes them (potentially) great, maybe you change everything.

It’s a far more complex situation than just, “Hey Kyrgios, you should get a coach and take it seriously, for once.”

The Aussie may get to a point where he’s going backwards instead of forwards, with what he wants to achieve – if he ever figures that out – increasingly in the rear-view mirror.

That might make the path clearer. But he’s still a long way from that. 

He knows he can’t be Federer. But it’s not as though he’s not paying attention. He knows.

“I think we’re two very different characters. And I think, you know, just the way he goes about things. I could take a leaf out of his book. The way he behaves on court, you know, his demeanor, I could definitely take away,” he said. “I don’t want to change myself too much, but I could definitely take away things he does in certain situations. He’s the ultimate role model to anyone who wants to play.”

Kyrgios is what he is

In the meantime, he’s Kyrgios. You can hate the way you think he disrespects your favorite sport. That’s fair. You can love him for the way it’s all just out there, raw, human, and for the way he somehow seems so approachable in his struggle. The kids have figured this out. They don’t judge; that’s probably why he likes them so much.

Or you can take him just as he is. And wait for him to figure it out. That’s probably the hardest thing to do in an age where every opinion is polarized. We all want to get to that last chapter in the book, that match point – often without paying attention to the plot, the subtle shifts. 

In the end, he can never hurt the game that much, because he only brings attention to it. These days, even “bad” attention is good attention. There are a lot of people out there making a very good living at that.

At worst, he hurts himself. That’s no one else’s problem.

Because with all due respect to the respectful, hard-working grinders out there, the Schwartzmans and Millmans who honor the game with their efforts and go out there and run their tails off, Kyrgios is the one who turns heads.

He’s the the one you can’t take your eyes off of. And if one of those grinders can come out and beat him, that’s good, too. It takes all kinds.

You’re not going to change him. So you can join him – in a sense. Or ignore him – if you can.