Australian Open 2019: Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic's struggles highlight need of mental coaching for younger players

Talent is not something Nick Kyrgios has ever lacked. Currently at No. 51 in the ATP Men’s rankings, however, the Australian has had a difficult past few months and a tough start to the year, with a hard-fought first round win — swiftly followed by a second-round exit at the Brisbane International last week.

Nick Kyrgios at a training session ahead of the Australian Open. AFP

Nick Kyrgios at a training session ahead of the Australian Open. AFP

At 23, Kyrgios has heard countless times, as have tennis watchers, that the player will “grow out” of the behaviour he has displayed over the past few years, and that age would bring maturity.

In 2017, the Australian ace pulled out of the Rotterdam Open — an ATP 500 tournament, to participate in the NBA All-Star, only to not be named to the squad in the end. That came only a few months after Kyrgios’ controversial performance at the Shanghai Masters in late 2016 against fellow young talent Alexander Zverev.

During the pair’s match, Kyrgios purposefully played poor shots, walking back to his chair before his rival completed the return, and then requested the chair umpire, Ali Nilli, to “call time on this match so I can go home”, in addition to playing a litany of bizarre shots.

2018 saw Kyrgios on the upswing early on, with the young ace taking home top honours at the Brisbane International, following it up with a Round 4 finish at the Australian Open. But as Kyrgios is wont to do, he courted controversy yet again towards the end of the tennis season, this time at the US Open, for first, appearing demotivated — and moving towards tanking his match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert.

Following a struggle, Kyrgios received an alleged pep talk from umpire Mohamed Lahyani, who was recorded by a number of sources present at the venue as saying, "I want to help you, I want to help you. I've seen your matches, you're great for tennis," and "I can see that, I know this is not you.” Both Lahyani and Kyrgios denied that the player had received on-court coaching — which could have drawn sanctions for both player and umpire, but the pair were roundly criticised by many players, Roger Federer among them.

Kyrgios followed that up with a new spat with tennis pro Donna Vekic, whom he had infamously insulted years earlier during a match against her partner, Swiss Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka.

Kyrgios has made no secret, particularly in the past few months, of his struggles with his mental health — and for that, he should doubtless be lauded. What is in question is his own desire to play the game — one that, even into 2019, it seems doubtful even the player has enough clarity about.

Even in 2019, Kyrgios appears to have reunited fresh feuds — this time with former World No. 1 Pat Rafter, who said he resigned as Australia’s Davis Cup captain as a result of issues he faced with Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic. Tomic, for his own part, will, like Kyrgios, be unseeded at the Australian Open.

Unlike Kyrgios, however, he does not face an immensely uphill task; 23-year-old Kyrgios faces World No. 16 Milos Raonic in his Round 1 match, which if he wins would mean he would face old rival Stan Wawrinka yet again.

Last week, at the Kooyong Classic, Kyrgios lost to old friend and rival Tomic, with a strange underhand serve involved in the match — which wound up going to Tomic in straight sets.

Tomic himself has made no secret of his struggles — or his ‘bad boy’ antics. Often pictured more on the party circuit on the court, Tomic faces a brutal Australian Open opening — against former US Open winner Marin Cilic.

More loath to boast about his millions in earnings, speaking of his “amazing” achievements in the sport and winning millions of dollars in prize money in spite “not really trying hard throughout his career.” In an interview in Miami in 2017, Tomic, reminiscently of Kyrgios, said “…if you balance it out, I think all my career’s been around 50 per cent and I haven’t really tried and I’ve achieved all this.”

Tomic added, “so it’s just amazing what I’ve done. I never loved tennis. I am just going to go about it as a job.”

Neither player — both considered “problem children” as tennis goes — has appeared to be particularly invested in the sport as a career, but each has been able to coast along as a result of their talent. No doubt that even that talent likely came with a lot of hard work at some point, but is it time each took a step back to consider if that is what they really want to do anymore.

Particularly this year, a number of senior players — the Pats — Cash and Rafter, and Mark Philippoussis among them, have suggested they still do not believe Kyrgios’ head is fully in the game, a suggestion that fans might well concur with, given the circumstances.

Yes, he is young, especially considering the players around him. But if he is to take a decision on the long-term future of his career, whether that is in terms of physical fitness, mental health, and even just planning, that decision will have to be taken sooner, rather than later. Two years ago, Kyrgios said that should he win the US Open, the tennis world would “never see him again.” Perhaps he is waiting for that “one big achievement” to go out on a high — a strange strategy from where most tennis watchers are standing, but his decision regardless.

This year, Kyrgios has said he is in a “better frame of mind” and confident of cracking tennis’ Top 10. Judging, however, from his strange Kooyong Classic performance — is it something fans should truly expect?

And as tennis ages go, especially considering how the greats have been pushing the envelope with regards to longevity in the sport, Kyrgios is still relatively young. However, surrounded by newer and better rivals his age — and many younger than himself, is it time Kyrgios took a step back to re-evaluate whether he truly wants to play tennis at all.

This also brings to mind the question: should mental training — and in fact, a focus on mental health, be an integral part of young players’ training? Many tennis programs in the UK do in fact have mental health facilities and access — it is time, perhaps, the rest of the world followed suit — to help players of Kyrgios’ caliber stem their problems before they reach the magnitude they appear to have had with the Australian.

In a time where longevity has become the norm and a system that insists on constant, consistent winning to stay afloat in the rankings, zoning in and focusing on the mental aspect of the game, in early training, and very much in the adult game as well, is paramount.

Only last year, a certain Swiss ace said in an interview that “victories don’t come easy, you have to be mentally strong to be at the top no matter — regardless of the player you are.” Indeed, is that mental aspect of the game that has truly kept the players at the top where they are — at the top.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 16:47 PM

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