Australian Open Tennis: Courting Kyrgios

Nick Kyrgios lost a tennis match last night.  But he won in the courts that matter – the court of public opinion and the court of self respect.  


Only sour old Margaret refused to applaud his brilliant shots – while Mrs Laver next door was enthusiastic.  Tennis Australia wisely trotted out Rod Laver to present Margaret’s pre-match Hall of Fame Award – knowing that booing Rod is a level above booing Santa.  I clapped her as someone old enough to remember her tennis brilliance – but she is Folau in flannel. I despair at a society where we cannot disagree without making others wicked, evil or stupid.


Back at the tennis Rafa started like mum told him to be home by dark.  Relentless; brutal; brilliant.  He plays in a tent where there is no crowd and the opponent appears only briefly when he opens the flap to let in some air and the next point.


Nick was his usual red cordial self but it appeared that Leyton has been watering down the mix – and he is starting to like the more subtle taste.  He came on court in a Kobe #8 Lakers singlet and, not just a fanboy, he was moved by the gravity of the moment.  Life’s impermanence.  Fate running through our fingers like sand.  He seemed on the verge of tears lacing his shoes and it carried onto the court in a listless first set.


Only his first serve was effective and Rafa collected sidelines and points like a miser while Nick sprayed returns like confetti.


Great sporting contests have turning points where the significance becomes apparent with time and consequence.  Kyrgios opens the second set down 0-40 and I’m checking the Sandringham timetable for 9.30.  For the first time the crowd lift him and he finds the light and the fight.  Hanging in there to the middle of the set when Nadal misses consecutive shots for the first time and is broken. 


On the sidelines, Leyton is fist-pumping and clapping every point. If we were closer I could hear the “come on’s”.  He nods affirmation at the service break.  Excellence is a given in elite sport.  Only persistence divides winners from losers.


Rafa has taken five steps further back to receive Nick’s serve.  It’s s a tradeoff that means he gets more back but the returns from deeper lose their attacking spice.  At least he no longer has to turn around to ask the ballkid for a towel between points.


Nick hangs tough on serve and eventually the match is even at a set apiece.  His brilliant occasionalness balancing Rafa’s occasional brilliance.


The match has reached full voice now.  Kyrgios soprano and Nadal thundering bass.  Courtside you feel every lunge and hear the effort in every shot.  Rafa’s consistent “oof” while Nick “eeks, errs and aaah’s” like a teenager at a horror movie.


Rafa is a poker player while Nick has more “tells” than a patient on sodium pentathol.  With Nadal deep behind the baseline Kyrgios persists with drop shots like a gambler doubling down on beaten favourites.  


The third set is relentless with both players hanging tough.  The inevitable tiebreaker reaches 5 all when Nick blinks and hits a 217km/h second serve double fault.  A racket is smashed and the demons have returned.  Like an alcoholic in a pub he has resisted temptation long enough and one sip unleashes a bender.


But deep inside the killer a heart still beats and Rafa double faults in sympathy.  He collects himself while Nick collects empties and the third set is gone.


Nick’s box have stood in support at the breaks all night – every win; every loss – every genius; every doh.  But at the set break Nick rails at the gods in full-blown manic episode while the assembled psychiatrists/therapists/counsellors in the stand reach for the medicine cabinet.


The fourth set starts with Nick’s service broken to love and his spirit on the ledge.  Down 0-40 again the crowd remind him of how far he’s come. Only Rafa wants an early night. Resilience and fightback are another country for Nick but he finds the map.  


The band is playing the medleys and it seems like an honourable 3-6 is the best Kyrgios can deliver.  But he keeps believing and I’m standing and yelling for him to put the bottle down and keep going.  The crowd that started 60-40 for Nadal seems to have switched – either in admiration of Nick’s fight or wanting to get their money’s worth with an improbable fifth set.


Nadal fluffs his lines like a stuttering actor for one of the few times and Nick’s Hamlet turns Henry V on St Crispins Day.  We are back on serve at 5-5 and then a tiebreak that trades point for point like gamblers raising the stakes with every turn of the card.


Eventually Nick blinks but it’s a loss that feels like a win because he matched Rafa with fight as much as shotmaking.  He’s a believer and so are we.



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  1. citrus bob says

    Peter Baulderstone – congratulations Pete quite the best article that I have ever read from your usually poisoned pen!
    Brilliant and Nick is no longer curious and I must congratulate Liddle Lleyton here -he has something that brings out the best NK.

  2. I have always been a Kyrgios fan. He brings so much to tennis – he is pure box office.
    But Nick never asked for, or wanted to be, the poster child of Australian tennis.
    He was an extraordinarily gifted kid who, I believe, grew to hate his job – much like the many Australians who despise him. Yeah, tennis pays well if you are good (and dedicated), but hitting thousands of balls over a net sure gets repetitive for a 20 year old.
    “What” say the crowd. “You should be enjoying the privilege!”

    And, honestly, if I read another article about the “Big 3”, I will spew up.

    Thanks for this, PB. Well played!

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Superb account of a great match PB. I’m so glad that you had the contest you deserved for your visit. Krygios is an interesting character. I can’t claim to have been a consistent admirer, Smokie, but his impressive reaction to the tragedy of the bushfires indicates a new found maturity and empathy that I wouldn’t have credited previously.

  4. Citrus – not liking modern cricket and the Cats makes me grumpy? Moi? Have written very positive pieces on cycling and tennis in the last week.
    Smokie – your argument about talent and boredom are valid. But I wonder why Federer not similarly affected? He clearly loves the game and hit as many balls etc. There is a wonderful junior development/coaching podcast and they often talk about the Federer/Tiger Woods dilemma. Play one sport obsessively as a kid like Tiger or multiple options like Roger. Steve Kerr the NBA Warriors Champion coach was on recently and he reinforced how much European/African imports added to the team and tactics with their soccer upbringing. Steph Curry is a champ at multiple sports and only specialised late. He says “don’t get your kids to do what champs do now; get your kids to do what champs did when they were 10/12/14”. So much physical and mental burnout.
    As for the Kyrgios entertainment value – spot on. He never mouthed volubly all night but was animated. Raonic (no groundshots and no personality) and Djokovic played in a morgue tonight. We wanted to leave after one set. Sport has to be more than brute power to engage me.

  5. PF – With you as I’ve never been a Kyrgios fan. But we all love a good redemption story. His physical intensity impressed me as much as mental. He has had the reputation of not being a hard trainer – but he showed no signs after the tough 3rd round 5 setter.

  6. Daryl Schramm says

    Dear PB.
    A brilliant read. Thank you.
    I started watching at home during the third set. I was almost uncomfortable about my wanting NK to do well so quickly after not giving him the time of day for some time. Maybe my sub-conscious didn’t want RN to win. When the racquet got destroyed and the commentary started shitting me I muted the sound and lost some of my interest. Your article allowed me to express what I had felt at the time. Thanks again.

  7. John Butler says

    PB, that’s a great description of a compelling contest. Particularly liked “His brilliant occasionalness balancing Rafa’s occasional brilliance.”

    I think Kyrgios is the most intriguing sports person we have at present. Ash Barty has a great story, and has achieved more, but I think Kygrios challenges the conformity of professional sport in interesting ways. Not the ‘bad boy’ stuff, which is just conforming to a particular type – of which tennis has had far too many examples already – but in the way he seems to openly question why he’s even out there. It’s not what we expect from pro sports people, but it’s honest. And he has the saving grace of empathy, despite the tantrums.

    Latterly he seems to be coming up with better answers for why he’s out there. Let’s hope it lasts, because he’s a talent.

  8. Well I just loved this, Peter_B.
    I didn’t see a minute of the tennis contest.
    Nor any tennis at all this summer.

    But I feel that I understand the back-story in a pop culture sense – and the idea of competition.
    Anyway, I found your article full of soaring observations. I enjoyed the reading of your writing.

    Play on.

  9. Roger Lowrey says

    An extremely fine read Peter.

    I pretty much agree with most of what has already been written above so to avoid repetition I shall select a different aspect of your story to comment on.

    The Cats, dare I say it, have had me on far more than one occasion checking the V/Line timetable to North Geelong. Different direction to Sandringham but same motivation as yours.

  10. Kyrgios is like the Scarlet Pimpernel. And that really annoys the court of public opinion (the self-obsessed jerks like Tony Jones) because the court likes to put people in a well defined, easy to understand, one-dimensional, unchallenging box. But old mate Nick won’t stay in a box. I kind of like that about him. Even though he carries on like a tool at times.
    As Leunig once brilliantly wrote:
    “Stay clear of these hollow monkey-suited, power-trip gatherings of crawling, self congratulating winners and all the excellence they espouse. Stay away from excellence at all costs; it stinks. Stay out of the loop, the club, the inner circle.”

    Enjoyed the piece PB. Enjoyed the game too.

  11. Enjoyable re-living of an excellent tennis match thanks PB. Engaging match. Engaging piece. Agree with you PB and commenters who say that Kyrgios’s complexities make him intriguing.

    I am amused by elements of the commentariat who suggest they ‘know’ him – in the sense of understanding him. As someone wrote above, they project their simplistic analysis on him.

    Re his tennis, I just love his repetoire of shots and the moments when he chooses to employ them or is it more a case of the moments he chooses to try them out. That’s audacious.

  12. Paul Spinks says

    A very enjoyable metaphor melody, Peter B.

    Been about 15 years since I went to the Open – attended on Saturday and saw Kyrgios play the Russian, Khachanov: curiosity pricked by Nick’s lead-up performance. Kyrgios gets a gong just for being original and attempting shots others wouldn’t dare – now he’s more successful with his gambles, though still occasionally not knowing when to hold ’em. Nadal and Djokovic are machine-like, though still enjoyable to watch – I wonder if they had more failings we’d warm to them more.

    Behaviour-wise Nick’s trying to be more circumspect and is engaging as a result. Yes, everyone loves a redemption story.

    He may go on to be a regular slam winner, or he might find there are other things in life he considers more important. I’m still not sure he’s fully decided yet.

  13. How can you not love (have trouble loving) Nick! The outsider, the renegade, the wild spirit. Funny how rocknroll makes legends of this character. And tennis, still burdened by its history of English country gardens, an approved Establishment sport wrapped up with rules and manners still struggles to include mavericks. When they’re as red hot talented as Nick it’s an even harder bargain. I hope he doesn’t conform. Dissensus has its place. My fave moment in sport last year was when Nick begged for a toilet break so he could go into the pavilion and smash his rackets. That’s his idea of toeing the line. Love it.

    Great piece PB, would have loved to be there. Oh, and what other player applauds their opponent’s game as much as Nick?

  14. Brilliant PB. Nick’s narrative also speaks to our collective need to offer forgiveness. We want our prodigiously talented to succeed. We forgave Lleyton repeatedly, and now he’s apparently NK’s mentor. I’m not a close fan of tennis but I understand that even Roger was prone to tantrums in his youth, and now he occupies rarefied air not even afforded Gandhi. And who has enjoyed more second chances than SK Warne? He’ll likely be our first president! This optimism is a great human quality.

  15. Very harsh on Margaret Court! Show some respect! She’s a living legend with 24 Grand Slam singles titles and countless more in doubles and mixed doubles! Margaret, you beauty! Carn The Mighty Margaret Court! You are ace, Margaret.

  16. Peter, Agree Krygios loss to Rafa was a loss that felt like a win.
    I quite like the tension of not knowing what Krygios will offer up next.
    His games have added to a week of great night matches for tv viewers like me.

  17. Peter, a bit harsh on Margaret Court, don’t you think? Is it right, is it kind, is it necessary, is it helpful?

  18. Peter B, I know Margaret Court’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I go to many tennis matches without clapping anyone’s good shots. It is completely Margaret Court’s right not to clap. Are you going to call me a sour, old person too?

  19. Rosemary – Is it true?
    TF – Yep. I was at the tennis 4 days last week and 2 days at Fed Cup in November. 99% applauded and cheered good shots from both players/countries. Not cheering excellence is like only having sex for reproduction. Not cheering is very Old Testament.

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