The Summer Of Nick Kyrgios Is Over
12:01 PM EDT on September 7, 2022
After chronicling the ups and (mostly) downs of his career, so studiously and so credulously, there's a "boy who cried wolf" tinge to writing about Nick Kyrgios now. How many times have I been convinced that this time—unlike that last, different time—he was finally applying his considerable talents and redirecting his career? And how many times have I been wrong? After all these false alarms, the past several months have seen the 27-year-old destroy his opponents instead of his racquet. Every match it seemed like an inevitability that his focus would run dry, but then he kept going. That focus carried him all the way to Wimbledon final, to a title in Washington, and to the quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. He had a 35-10 record on the season, a 6-4 record against top-10 foes, and the best hold percentage on tour. An engaged Nick Kyrgios has teleported from some other possible world into our very own world.
"I felt like when I was really struggling mentally, I was very selfish. I felt like, I feel bad, I don't want to play. Then I looked at the people closest to me and how much I was letting them down, and I didn't want to do that anymore," Kyrgios said Monday, reflecting on his past self after he eliminated world No. 1 and defending U.S. Open champ Daniil Medvedev in the fourth round. "I just tried to just look at my career. I was like, 'I feel like I've got so much left to give to the sport.' That's it."
Kyrgios got into tour-level shape for the first time in his life on the professional tennis tour. He devised an unseemly but fruitful strategy of channeling his mid-match bile towards his player's box, instead of at the umpire or himself. He kept himself happy by playing doubles with his friend Thanasi Kokkinakis, even winning at the Australian Open. He stopped hitting aspirationally viral novelty shots for no reason except to feel something, anything at all. After all that, what's left is the best serve of his generation, backed up by some of the best feel and court sense, plus legs that could sustain the work. It should not be all that surprising that such a player might dominate tennis. Tennis itself has been screaming that obvious fact into the void for nearly a decade now.
The new Kyrgios was disorienting at times. Matches against lower-ranked players, which used to be invitations to tank, were handled frictionlessly. Interviews were full of earnest and lucid expressions of motivation, instead of deflection and trolling. Return games became chances to do proactive damage, rather than lifeless intermissions before his next serve. But some old habits die hard. He picked up $35,000 in fines at the Miami Open, and a Wimbledon fan is suing him for defamation after he told the umpire that the fan looked like she "had about 700 drinks, bro." There was also a more serious incident that doesn't fit into any tidy comeback arc: In July, Kyrgios was charged with common assault of his ex-girlfriend Chiara Passari, which allegedly occurred in December 2021; the court date has been adjourned to early October.
Kyrgios's quarterfinal loss against Karen Khachanov on Wednesday night was duller than its 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-4 scoreline would suggest. At the outset, it bore tragic resemblance to a meeting between John Isner and Ivo Karlovic. Soon Kyrgios began poking at his left leg, and looked iffy when moving to his left or leaning into his backhand. After losing the first set with a distracted service game, he took a medical timeout and got his leg massaged with a topical analgesic. In the second set he began feeling his way into the match, breaking early. (Somewhere along the way, a YouTuber had his hair cut in a courtside section and got booted from the stadium.) Kyrgios lost the third on another careless final service game, and took the fourth in a cleanly played tiebreak. He was broken early in the fifth; despite looking livelier in his movement and ball-striking as the end drew nearer, he was unable to close that gap. Khachanov served mightily throughout, and despite his poor form coming into the Open, and crushing indifference of the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium, now enters his first major semifinal.
The peril of caring about winning is that the losses hurt. Kyrgios smashed his racquets after the handshake at the net and was despondent in press, perhaps aware of the tremendous opportunity of a major field without Nadal or Djokovic. "I honestly feel like shit. I feel like I've let so many people down. I just don't know. I feel like I'm playing Tokyo and stuff," Kyrgios said, referring to the tournament he intends to play in October after he heads home to Australia for the first time in four months. "But, like, I feel like these four [major] tournaments are the only ones that ever are going to matter. It's just like you got to start it all again." He's talked about wanting to play just a few more seasons before giving up the grind of year-round touring, and joked after his win over Medvedev that he just needed "three more matches potentially, then we never have to play tennis again." I have only my last scraps of credibility to lose by offering such a prediction, but I really do suspect Kyrgios's last stretch of tennis will reflect his genuine ability.