Australian Open 2020: High on promise and compassion, Nick Kyrgios shines in summer to remember

What is turning a corner for Kyrgios, really? Is it being more invested in tennis, or doing more for charity? Is it improving his physical and mental conditioning, or doing away with the childish jibes he keeps taking at Nadal and Djokovic?

Musab Abid February 04, 2020 12:39:37 IST
Australian Open 2020: High on promise and compassion, Nick Kyrgios shines in summer to remember
  • Nick Kyrgios was an integral part of Australia’s semi-final-bound ATP Cup team, and the inspiration behind Tennis Australia organising the Rally for Relief

  • Kyrgios was also a prominent presence at the Australian Open, reaching as far as the fourth round — where he gave Rafael Nadal a tough fight

  • The end of a Kyrgios Summer, and still only positive things to take away from it? Maybe he has turned a corner after all.

It has been a tumultuous summer in Australia. So much has happened since the start of the new tennis season, against the backdrop of the raging bushfires that have caused widespread destruction in the country, that it feels like we’ve all aged a year in the last one month.

Nick Kyrgios has been at the heart of all these events. He was an integral part of Australia’s semi-final-bound ATP Cup team, and the inspiration behind Tennis Australia organising the star-studded Rally for Relief which raised close to AUD 5 million for bushfire relief. He was also a prominent presence at the Australian Open, reaching as far as the fourth round — where he gave Rafael Nadal a tough fight.

Australian Open 2020 High on promise and compassion Nick Kyrgios shines in summer to remember

File photo Nick Kyrgios. Reuters

With so much of Kyrgios in our lives, it was only natural to expect more than a few unsavory incidents that reinforced his ‘bad boy’ image. But surprisingly, the moments we remember the most about him from the summer are all positive.

Kyrgios’ battle with Karen Khachanov in the third round, which ended in a fifth-set tiebreaker, was arguably the match of the tournament. The down-the-line backhand that Kyrgios struck to retrieve a mini-break at 7-8 in the breaker will live long in memory, as will his commitment to every point he played in the tournament.

Kyrgios’ unusual show of emotion at the ATP Cup is another episode that nobody will forget any time soon. Speaking after his win over Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, Kyrgios broke down as he contemplated the havoc being wreaked by the bushfires.

“My home town is Canberra and we’ve got the most toxic air in the world at the moment, that’s pretty sad. It’s tough. Sorry,” Kyrgios said. He had pledged to donate $200 for every ace he hit in the summer – and Kyrgios usually hits a lot of aces – which was what kick-started the massive wave of support from tennis players towards the bushfire relief.

“I don’t really care about the praise too much,” he said. “We’ve got the ability and the platform to do something…It’s all going to all the families, firefighters, animals, everyone who is losing homes, losing families… it’s a real thing. It’s bigger than tennis.”

He even said it was tough to "go out there and concentrate on tennis," and yet that’s exactly what he did the entire summer. At the ATP Cup he was sensational in the group stage, winning all of his singles matches, including a high-quality affair against Stefanos Tsitsipas that required three tiebreakers. He then combined with Alex de Minaur for the doubles decider in the quarter-finals against Great Britain, and the Aussie duo ended up pulling off one of the most spectacular heists you’ll ever get to see.

Kyrgios’ camaraderie with De Minaur at the tournament was particularly heart-warming to see. The two have become good friends in recent times, and their play in tandem with each other — Kyrgios the gifted short-maker, De Minaur the stubborn retriever — gave all opposition teams trouble.

The mutual good vibes continued at the Australian Open, which De Minaur had to skip because of an injury. After getting past Lorenzo Sonego in the first round, Kyrgios dedicated the win to De Minaur, saying, “Obviously I’m still heartbroken about Demon, if he’s watching, that was for you little fella. I hope you are resting up.”

Did all the positivity from the ATP Cup, the Rally for Relief and his deepening friendship with De Minaur light a fire under Kyrgios? The 24-year-old has struggled with his motivation over the last five years, and neither criticism from experts nor fines from officials have been able to rectify his tanking ways. But in Melbourne, Kyrgios played with a singular focus that was as refreshing as it was captivating.

Kyrgios duly dispatched his first two opponents the way he was supposed to, and then proceeded to script a barely-believable show of pure ball-striking against Khachanov in the third round. Kyrgios and Khachanov traded missiles for nearly 4.5 hours with such ferocity that by the end we wondered how their arms hadn’t fallen off yet.

Kyrgios choked in the third set, but didn’t let that get to him. He took care of his serve like his life depended on it, and in the fifth set tiebreaker, he even returned serve like his life depended on it. None of us thought the Aussie had the stamina to last in a four-hour epic, and yet by the end, it was Kyrgios who looked fresher than his opponent.

Perhaps there was another reason behind Kyrgios’ persistence: The prospect of a rematch with his old foe Rafael Nadal. The Canberra native has made no secret of his love for beating Nadal, and the Spaniard himself has uncharacteristically dissed Kyrgios in the past for his supposed lack of ‘respect’ for the sport. So when the two took the court for their fourth-round match, we all expected fireworks.

And we sure got them. After splitting the first two sets, Kyrgios and Nadal produced a period of play so intense and enthralling in the third set that we were lost for superlatives. Both men were at their absolute best over those 45 minutes; every big Kyrgios serve was responded to by a trademark Nadal sprint, and every hooked forehand by Nadal was answered by a delicate Kyrgios drop shot.

It took all of Nadal’s reserves to beat Kyrgios to the punch at the end of the tiebreaker. And considering Kyrgios’ fatigue carried over the previous match, the result was never in doubt after that. But Kyrgios had promised a show for the fans, and he had delivered. He had forced a GOAT candidate to strain every last sinew to beat him, which was more than anyone could ask after all that he had been through over the previous couple of weeks.

It seems like we ask this question every six months, but has Kyrgios turned a corner? Will he remain committed to the sport week-in, week-out from now on, instead of showing up just once in a year to beat a string of top 10 opponents and remind us what we’ve been missing the rest of the time?

If we’ve learned anything from Kyrgios in the last five years, it is that there is no right answer to the question. What is turning a corner for Kyrgios, really? Is it being more invested in tennis, or doing more for charity? Is it improving his physical and mental conditioning, or doing away with the childish jibes he keeps taking at Nadal and Djokovic?

Kyrgios has always been a one-man highlights reel with his gifted shot-making, and after his ATP Cup exploits we now also know that he is going to be a regular — and dedicated — participant in team competitions. Beyond that, we can only hope; there is a lot that Kyrgios can do, but it is up to him what path he chooses.

“I feel like I've made progress as a human. A tennis player… I want to keep going in this direction, for sure,” said Kyrgios after his Australian Open campaign. “If anything, (the bushfires) did fuel me and made me play harder. They're still going, everything is still going.

“The last month for me has been pretty hectic, pretty emotional. I'm pretty tired. I want to try to continue to help where I can.”

The end of a Kyrgios Summer, and still only positive things to take away from it? Maybe he has turned a corner after all.

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