Nick Kyrgios, the twentieth-ranked tennis player in the world, stepped to the baseline. He briskly bounced the ball and rocked forward to begin his serve, his arms swinging. He has a narrow waist and strong shoulders, a greyhound’s look, and a greyhound’s air of languid indifference. Kyrgios, a twenty-two-year-old Australian, is the only active player ever to defeat Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic in their first meetings, he has beaten Nadal and Djokovic twice, in fact, and came within a few points of a second victory over Federer earlier this year. “I think Nick is the most talented player since Roger jumped on the scene,” Paul Annacone, a former coach of Federer and Pete Sampras, has said. Kyrgios is also the most mercurial. Jon Wertheim, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated , once called him “tennis’ id.” Beard trimming styles gq.
It was the second round of the Open Parc Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Lyon, a small tournament in the run-up to the French Open. There was a charge in the air, as there always is when Kyrgios plays. He is known for his spectacular shots: he has the skill and the imagination of Federer or John McEnroe. His matches have also featured epic displays of ranting, racquet-wrecking, and trash-talking. Kyrgios once flagrantly tried to lose a match, bopping in a serve like a beginner, and starting to walk off the court before it bounced. At some point in almost every match, he tends to do something brilliant—or he snaps.
Twisting, eyes wide, he opened his shoulders and tossed the ball. Then he reared up and whipped his racquet toward the toss. It is an efficient, brutally effective motion. In a match in March, Kyrgios aced Djokovic, the greatest returner in the history of the game, twenty-five times in two sets. He hits flat serves more than a hundred and forty miles per hour. He slices the ball so that it skids the line. He can put on so much spin that the ball arcs in at eighty-four miles per hour and then leaps up above the returner’s head, as if the ground were a trampoline.
Across the net from Kyrgios was Nicolas Kicker, a twenty-four-year-old Argentine who is ranked ninety-fourth in the world. Serving at 5–2, 40–15, Kyrgios already had five aces. This serve, down the T, made it six. His forward momentum carried him toward his chair, as if that were his destination all along.
It was a lovely afternoon—mid-May, the golden hour—but something seemed wrong. Kyrgios winced and grabbed his hip. An old injury had flared up in Madrid two weeks earlier, he’d been forced to withdraw from a tournament in Rome. He started to shorten points, to limit the strain on his hip. He hit drop shots from well behind the baseline which died on the net. He went for aces, on both first and second serves. Kyrgios, who has an unusually aggressive game, often uses such tactics to great effect. But as the match wore on he appeared to be exhibiting not strategy but impatience. After one error, he bounced his racquet in disgust and caught it on the handle. The crowd murmured expectantly. They were ready for a meltdown. Instead, he bounced the racquet and caught it again, and again, as if to distract himself.
Kicker, serving for the set, hit a drop shot that hung in the air on the bounce. Kyrgios has tremendous speed, ordinarily, he could have covered the ground. Instead, he took only one step into the court, ceding the point. A few minutes later, he served and rushed the net, letting Kicker’s return fly by him, the ball landed well inside the lines. Point, Kicker. Down set point, with a second serve, Kyrgios went for the ace. It clipped the top of the net. Double fault. Kyrgios spent the changeover flipping a little Evian water bottle.
Kicker started swinging more freely. His serve got more pop. He hit several successful drop shots, testing Kyrgios’s sore hip. It started to look like the final at Roland Garros on Kicker’s side of the net, and an exhibition match on Kyrgios’s. Kyrgios ran around his forehand to hit a tweener—a between-the-legs shot—from the doubles alley, which Kicker easily blocked back into the open court. When Kicker broke his serve and took command of the set, Kyrgios slammed his racquet into the dirt. His hip seemed increasingly to bother him. So, perhaps, did his spirit, his grandfather, who helped rear him, had died a few weeks before. In the end, Kicker easily took the second and third sets, beating a top-fifty player for the first time. Kyrgios trudged to the net to shake his hand.
Half an hour after the match, I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my hotel, when I heard Kyrgios request a new room key. He was still in his kit: black shorts, a magenta Nike top, shoes smeared with ochre clay. His beard was trimmed tight along his jawline, his dark hair shaved on the sides of his head and sculpted on top like a flame.
He stared at his phone as he shuffled to the elevator. As he stepped inside, he looked up. We had met the previous day, and he sounded surprisingly cheerful as he greeted me. “Sorry about the match,” I said.
He gave a quick, harsh laugh, and then his voice lightened. “It’s all right. It’s not a big deal,” he said.
He stepped out of the elevator, and I watched the doors close behind his slumped shoulders. There are message-board threads dedicated to Kyrgios’s posture, with dozens of comments debating whether the curvature of his upper back requires surgery, interferes with his hormone circulation, or is a faker’s lazy pose.
Kyrgios says that he doesn’t want to be Federer. So what does he want? When you’re a tennis player who claims not to like playing tennis, when half the world (including most of Australia) seems to have an opinion of your character, and when you’re twenty-two years old, the answer can be complicated.
People tend to tell one of two stories about Kyrgios. Either he is a talented kid who is wasting his gift with a bad attitude and a terrible work ethic, or he is a talented kid who has struggled, sometimes severely, with his motivation, but who is maturing. A column in the Sydney Morning Herald was headlined “ Nick Kyrgios Is a National Embarrassment .” Other people believe that he could be the future of men’s tennis.
“I think he has the most talent of anyone twenty-five and under,” Brad Gilbert, an ESPN commentator and Andre Agassi’s former coach, told me. “If you put the total package around him”—coaches, trainers, focussed practice sessions, strenuous training blocks—“and he embraced that, I would be shocked if he didn’t win multiple slams and become top two in the world.”
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“People tell me I need to change, but it has to come from me,” Kyrgios told me before playing Kicker in Lyon. We were sitting in the hotel restaurant, with his agent, John Morris, in the lull between breakfast and lunch. Kyrgios wore long blue shorts and a Vince Carter jersey with a chain tucked into the neck. He drank a tiny glass of orange juice.
“I don’t think I want it enough,” Kyrgios said. He shook his head and said it again. Perhaps he was tired. His beloved Celtics had had a playoff game against Cleveland the night before, and he had been up at 3 A.M. , to watch. “The thing about tennis life is that it’s the same thing every day,” Kyrgios said. “You train. You come back to the hotel. You get treatment. You eat. You sleep. You get up.” It is unglamorous and exhausting, a life spent half in airports and hotels, thousands of miles from home. Almost every trip is punctuated, often early, with a loss. Some players orient themselves by the familiarity of their routines. Not Kyrgios: he gets homesick, injured, and bored. He wants to be playing basketball, he’d rather be fishing, he misses his dogs, his girlfriend, his family, his friends.
Other young players, such as Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, may be safer bets to win a slam soon. Zverev, a twenty-year-old German, recently beat Djokovic in Rome, becoming the youngest player to win a Masters title since Djokovic himself, in 2007. I asked Kyrgios whether Zverev’s win motivated him. “I’m incredibly happy for him,” he said, and it was obvious that he meant it. “But I don’t know if it motivates me. I didn’t feel, as soon as he won, Man, I’m going to go train, or anything. He won a tournament. It’s good, but it’s more weeks on the road where we’re going to play tennis matches, and that’s it.”
Many people assume that Kyrgios is in denial about his ambition. “I think deep down, in his own way, he’s becoming more professional,” Paul McNamee, a retired Australian player and a former C.E.O. of the Australian Open, told me. “But to admit that and to fail—he would not cope with that, maybe.” Kyrgios resists that analysis. “Some days, I’m really good,” he said. “I like going out on the practice court and training with my mates. But I don’t know about fully engaging and giving everything to it. It’s just a game. It’s just a sport. It’s such a small part of my life.”
I asked Kyrgios why he doesn’t quit. “I’d rather be doing that than working at Chipotle or something,” he said. “For me, it’s an easy way to make money. I’m just hitting a ball over a net.” He added, “Of course, I’ve grown up with it. It’s a part of me. It’s all I really know how to do.”
Kyrgios got up from his chair, he had a doubles match in a few hours. I was left with Morris, a compact Englishman with a thoughtful look. “He doesn’t do it for the money,” Morris said. “He doesn’t know what he has in the bank. He’s a competitor. He’s always competing.”
“So why does he sometimes stop trying to win?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He’s a bit of an enigma. I wish I knew. I think Nick probably wishes he knew more about it, too.”
Kyrgios’s first love was basketball. He spent countless hours watching “Space Jam” and playing the video game NBA Live. Eventually, he persuaded his parents to get a cable-TV package that included N.B.A. games. He’d wake up early to watch the Celtics and then go outside to shoot baskets, pretending that he was Paul Pierce. When he was fourteen, he was selected for a regional team. “I love the game. I love the sound of the basketball court,” he told me. “I love the team environment.”
He also played tennis, beginning group lessons when he was seven. “My mum wanted us to participate,” his sister, Halimah, explained. Nick’s father, George, a housepainter, came from Greece as a child, his mother, Nill, a computer engineer, was born in Malaysia. They reared three children, Christos, Halimah, and Nicholas, in a split-level house in a suburb of Canberra. George’s parents and Nill’s mother lived nearby and looked after the kids during the day. Halimah recalled that Nick, the youngest, “was just a cute little thing—very competitive, but I think that comes from Christos. When you’re the youngest, you’re always fighting to be better than the rest.”
He was best at tennis. A local coach, Andrew Bulley, recognized Kyrgios’s talent and started giving him private lessons. He hated to practice. “As soon as it became boring, he’d lose interest,” Bulley recalled. “He wanted scoring.” Kyrgios, who was overweight and asthmatic, couldn’t run well, which meant that he had to develop an original game. When he was out of position, he learned to hit winners off his heels or the back foot, using his loose arm to generate speed. He scraped deep shots off the bounce or delicately half-volleyed them instead of moving his feet. He did everything he could to play a point on his terms. “I had to work out way more to be more aggressive than the average player,” Kyrgios said.
By the time Kyrgios was ten, he was playing in Australia’s twelve-and-under national championships. By his early teens, he was travelling to Europe and Asia to play tournaments. Tennis is one of the most expensive sports to play at an élite level—travel and coaching can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars per year—and Kyrgios’s talent strained the family’s finances. Halimah recalled, “My parents had to decide, ‘Do we put in the money, all the money we have, to trust that it’s going to get somewhere?’ ” When Kyrgios was fifteen, Tennis Australia, the country’s governing body for the sport, and the Australian Institute of Sport, a national training center, offered him help in funding his career and a spot at the A.I.S. “My dad kind of just came out and said, ‘What’s easier to make it in, in Australia, playing basketball or tennis?’ Obviously, I knew the answer was tennis,” Kyrgios said.
At the A.I.S., he was miserable at first. He liked the camaraderie of the training center, but he missed basketball, and he hated the repetition required on the court. Still, his game got better, his diet improved, and, when he was fifteen, he had a growth spurt that left him lean, even skinny. At seventeen, in 2013, Kyrgios won the junior title at the Australian Open. The following year, he faced Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 player in the world, at Wimbledon. On the first point of the match, Kyrgios hit an ace down the T, Nadal barely had time to flinch. Kyrgios aced him thirty-seven times, hitting seventy winners in all. At 3–3 in the second set, he flicked his racquet behind his back and through his legs. The ball barely cleared the net, landing just inside the line. The tweener became his signature shot. Kyrgios won the match in four sets. He dropped his racquet and held his head in his hand. Morris told me, “You don’t see that same joy, sheer joy, anymore.”
Kyrgios won ten matches in slams before he won two in regular events. Off the main stage, he began to struggle with the demands of the tour. At the moment when most top players build up an entourage of coaches, physiotherapists, and trainers, Kyrgios split with one coach and then another, and struck out on his own. “Every coach I had tried to tame me, tried to make me play more disciplined, tried to make me do drills,” he told me. “All through my career, there were people trying to tell me to play a more normal style of tennis.” But, he went on, “I’ve just been kind of playing on instinct. I feel like it’s been successful, so I don’t know why there’s a good reason to stop that.”
Not having a coach meant that there was less accountability in practice. In Lyon, I watched him hit with another Aussie, Matt Reid, two days before the match against Kicker. Kyrgios did it his way. Warming up, he entertained the little crowd of kids gathered at the chain-link fence by punctuating his grunts with the names of other players (“Dominic UH Dominic UH Thiem EH-UH Jo-Willy UH Jo-Wilfried UH ”). He started hitting one-handed topspin backhands, a shot I’d never seen him hit in a match. He and Reid began to play out the points. “Fucking move your legs, you shit!” Kyrgios yelled at himself. Another backhand miss: “Make it!” A few shots later, he was smiling.
Those who know Kyrgios talk about his easy nature and his sense of humor. Yet he became prone to smashing racquets, arguing with umpires, and berating ball kids. He once prolonged a changeover at Wimbledon by theatrically changing his socks. At many tournaments, he racked up thousands of dollars in fines for unsportsmanlike conduct. Most appalling, he told Stan Wawrinka during a match that a friend had “banged” his girlfriend.
Last fall, in Shanghai, Kyrgios had his episode of openly trying to lose a match. “I was just done,” he told me. “I was, like, Next week, I get to go home, and the only thing that’s holding me back is this match.” He was fined twenty-five thousand dollars and suspended for three months, a penalty that was reduced to eight weeks after he agreed to see a psychologist. “Tennis, for me—it’s a completely different me,” he said. “The person I am on the court is not who I am off the court.”
Kyrgios is hardly the first to struggle with the warping pressure of being on tour and alone on the court. Suzanne Lenglen, the French player who dominated the women’s game between 1914 and 1926—she was nicknamed La Divine—drank brandy and cried during matches. Jimmy Connors made lewd gestures at fans. John McEnroe shouted at officials. “I shouldn’t be playing tennis now,” he told the Times after a loss in 1986. “I’m letting things affect me and I’m embarrassed.” He left the tour for six months.
Racquet smashing is the most common means of catharsis. Goran Ivanisevic had to default a 2000 match because he had broken all his racquets. In 2008, Mikhail Youzhny hit himself in the forehead with his racquet so hard that it left a bloody gash. Marat Safin, a two-time slam winner, who was as tormented as he was gifted, has estimated that he smashed seven hundred racquets in his career. He’s said to have played with shards of graphite embedded in his arm.
Almost every player smashes racquets, and all of them rant and mutter. “Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “Open.” “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.” And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach.
Andy Murray, the No. 1 men’s player, can keep up a monologue on the court for hours. He has become a mentor to Kyrgios, and FaceTimes with him regularly. “I’ve experienced a lot of what he is going through,” Murray wrote in an e-mail. “As athletes, we’re supposed to be mentally strong, and if you are seen to be talking about feelings or anything like that, not believing in yourself or backing yourself or struggling to cope with pressure, that’s seen as a negative.” He went on, “But there is also a lot of pressure and it’s not always that easy to deal with everything.”
Still, Kyrgios is not like Murray, who is one of the hardest workers on tour. Murray recently invited Kyrgios to join him for a training period. “That was a quick no for me, because I know he’s going to be training four, five hours a day,” Kyrgios said. “We were probably going to have to be doing these protein shakes.” Kyrgios is also not like McEnroe, who could never turn off his competitive instincts, or Agassi, though he comes closest to sounding like him. “When he was in it, Andre had amazing practice habits,” Gilbert, his former coach, told me. “He was a hard worker. Those are things you hear that Nick struggles with a little bit. Andre would have a patch where he wasn’t as committed, but when he was committed he put in the time—unbelievable—on the practice court.”
In January, at the Australian Open, Agassi gave a rare press conference, in which he talked about Kyrgios. Three days earlier, Kyrgios had crashed in the second round, after being up two sets to love against the unassuming Andreas Seppi. Thousands of people, in his native country, had booed Kyrgios off the court. Agassi cautioned against vilifying Kyrgios. “I do share your feelings that in watching him it feels, at first glance, very offensive to see so much talent, to see somebody in the sport that means a great deal to so many, sort of disregarded,” Agassi said. “But, with that being said, the journey I lived has taught me a lot about how deep one’s struggles can be and how much good can still exist at the same time. I don’t know his background. I know that I was always somebody that cared more than I portrayed, because it was my defense. It was my way of hiding myself from myself.”
After the Australian Open, Kyrgios was in a “dark place.” He went to Miami to be with his girlfriend, the Australian player Ajla Tomljanović, whom he’s been dating for two years. He thought about taking a break from tennis, he didn’t know for how long. But then he got a call from Lleyton Hewitt, a former champion who is now the captain of Australia’s Davis Cup team, urging him to play in the tournament. Top players rarely participate. But for Kyrgios it was a lifeline. “It was the best thing I could have done,” he said.
The other players were apprehensive about Kyrgios’s state of mind, but when he arrived in Melbourne, he was fully committed. He led the practice sessions with intensity, he was the first to start picking up balls. He spent extra time hitting with the youngest player. He embraced being part of a team. In February, the Australians defeated the Czech Republic. Two months later, they beat a strong American squad, with Kyrgios defeating Sam Querrey, a lanky big server, to clinch the tie. Afterward, Kyrgios lifted up Hewitt and carried him down to the court, before being engulfed by his teammates. “I love being on the bench, supporting someone else,” he said later. “I just love that you win together, you take a loss together.”
That match capped a remarkable run for Kyrgios. Between the two Davis Cup rounds, he beat Djokovic twice, and Zverev twice, and played Federer to nearly a draw in the semifinals of the Miami Open. It was a three-set, three-tiebreak affair in which the intensity never dropped. Brad Gilbert, who was courtside, told me that he considered it the highest-quality match this year. What really struck Gilbert, though, was how hard the crowd rooted against Kyrgios. They hissed, they tried to rattle him, they called balls out in the middle of points. For the most part, Kyrgios kept his cool. Then, on the last point, he pulverized his racquet. He was devastated to lose.
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“I felt like I was pretty much unbeatable during that time,” Kyrgios told me. “I don’t know if I had a mind-set that this is what I want to be doing right now. I didn’t have a choice. But I felt like I had one goal, and that was to compete every day.” He seemed to be settling into his talent. In May, he announced that he had started working with a coach, Sébastien Grosjean, a French former player who lives in Boca Raton, where Tomljanović trains. “It’s a challenge, a big one,” Grosjean told me. He has been trying to persuade Kyrgios to get a fitness coach, to prevent injuries and to help him build up his body for the marathons of the slams. “He can be a better athlete. But it’s new for him. It has to come from him.” Grosjean sounded like Kyrgios. “He has to understand,” he added.
After his wins this spring, Kyrgios was on the short list of dark horses at the French Open. But, when he talked about his recent success, he didn’t first point to his results. He spoke about getting to spend a month with Tomljanović, having a single goal each day, and being part of the Davis Cup team.
The tour moved from hard courts to clay, which blunts Kyrgios’s power and makes him run. After his grandfather died, in May, he skipped a tournament in Estoril, Portugal, and flew back to Australia for a week. He picked up a racquet for only twenty minutes, when the time came to head to the next tournament, in Madrid, he told his family that he didn’t want to go. As soon as he arrived in Europe, homesickness set in.
His body wasn’t ready. He reinjured his hip and lost a desultory match to Nadal. He pulled out of Rome, lost in Lyon, and then lost in the second round of the French Open, to Kevin Anderson, a strong player but one Kyrgios should have beaten. He wrecked two racquets during the match and asked someone in the crowd for a beer. “Honest to God, get me one now,” he begged.
“You’re kidding,” the spectator responded.
“I don’t think so,” Kyrgios said.
He was later criticized for having played doubles the day before, when he and his countryman Jordan Thompson upset the No. 2 seeds, instead of saving his energy for singles. But he intends to play more doubles, not less. It removes the pressure of being alone on the court, he told me, and reminds him that tennis “can be fun.”
He arrived in London two weeks before the start of Wimbledon and rented a house. His mother and Tomljanović joined him, and his mom cooked, it felt a little like home. On June 19th, he played his first match of the grass-court season, in the Aegon International, at the Queen’s Club. Practicing, he looked relaxed. He has liked grass since he first played on it as a kid, at a tournament in Australia. It helps his big serve skid, and it suits his aggressive style.
At Queen’s, Kyrgios faced the American Donald Young in the first round. They were on serve halfway through the first set when Kyrgios’s right foot slipped on the newly laid grass, his left knee buckled unnaturally, and he went down, rolling over in pain. He had strained his hip again. Kyrgios limped through the rest of the set, which he lost in a tiebreak, and then retired from the tournament.
Still, he vowed to play Wimbledon. He thinks he can win. And if he doesn’t—not now, not ever? Kyrgios has said that he would like to emulate the career of Gaël Monfils, a Frenchman known for his leaping shots and questionable strategies, and for being one of the most talented players never to win a major. When I mentioned Monfils’s unfulfilled promise, Kyrgios challenged me. “He’s got to, I think, eight in the world,” he said. “He’s won a lot of tournaments. He’s been to semifinals of grand slams. He’s made a ton of money. He’s probably one of the happiest guys on tour.” He added, “Ultimately, he’s just a guy who wants people to enjoy watching tennis.”
Kyrgios sometimes elicits comparisons to Monfils, if only because they both have a propensity for tweeners. But Kyrgios doesn’t have the same carefree demeanor on the court. “I think he struggles with who he wants to be and who he is,” Rennae Stubbs, an Australian commentator and former player, told me. The question in the tennis world tends to be whether Kyrgios will figure out how to win consistently. But for Kyrgios maybe there’s a different project. “I just would like to be happy,” he said. “That’s a tough one for me.” ♦