Nick Kyrgios' extraordinary bravery in revealing mental health woes adds new dimension to bizarre on-court antics

Kick someone, and they’ll kick you back. Criticise someone, and they’ll send a volley of verbal abuse your way. But laugh at someone, and you damage them so badly that there is often no response forthcoming.

File image of Nick Kyrgios. AFP

File image of Nick Kyrgios. AFP

Is being laughed at the worst thing that can happen to a person’s spirit? It’s certainly the one strike to which there is never an adequate response. What are you going to do: magically unearth something embarrassing from your attacker’s past and lay it bare before the world? And if even if you do manage that, what if the world doesn’t find it funny? There really is no coming back from becoming a laughing stock.

You wonder whether Nick Kyrgios has felt that way at any point in the last few years. Ever since that shockwave-emanating defeat of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2014, Kyrgios has oscillated from the brilliant to the cringeworthy and has earned his share of praise and brickbats. But in recent times his behaviour has become so extreme that he no longer attracts mere criticism; now, he is the butt of all jokes.

We asked ourselves – is he for real? And we came up with our own answer – he can’t possibly be. So we readily anointed him as the unwitting class clown who is destined to be an object of ridicule all through his career.

The ‘incidents’ have been too many and too frequent, with no end in sight. And the worst part? They’ve been getting progressively more bizarre with each passing year.

Back in 2014, he only attracted headlines for smashing racquets and getting close to disqualification, as he did in the US Open match against Mikhail Youzhny. But a year later, he was threatening a mid-match strike in response to a conscientious decision by umpire Mohammed Lahyani, sarcastically questioning the job and authority of both the linesman and the chair umpire (Carlos Bernandes), and tanking his way out of the most prestigious tournament in the world – all in the space of one week, at Wimbledon 2015.

Two months later, at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, he became the perpetrator of the most revolting on-court insult seen or heard in recent times. After he vocally insinuated that the girlfriend of his opponent Stan Wawrinka had had a physical relationship with Thanasi Kokkinakis, Kyrgios was widely acknowledged as the reigning supervillain of the ATP tour.

Surely 2015 had to be the Australian’s annus horribilis, the sophomore year filled with never-to-be-repeated mistakes that were born of newly acquired fame. Or so we thought.

In 2016 Kyrgios plumbed new depths, if that was even possible. He declared that he liked playing Pokemon Go more than tennis, and trumpeted his own tweener lob as justification for being included in the Olympics (before withdrawing himself from selection). Then, at the Shanghai Masters, he pulled out the tank job to beat all tank jobs.

But 2017 seemed to be an improvement, as he reached his maiden Masters final at Cincinnati and defeated Novak Djokovic a bunch of times. But then at the US Open he went out tamely to John Millman (who was to be made famous a year later for an entirely more positive reason) in the first round, before telling everyone that he just wasn’t dedicated enough.

It’s been much of the same in 2018, with a few new twists thrown in. At Queen’s, he was fined for imitating a lewd act on the court (no prizes for guessing what that lewd act was). And at the US Open he turned Mohammed Lahyani, the umpire he had such a beef with four years ago, into his involuntary coach. As Kyrgios’ bemused (and later outraged) opponent Pierre Hugues-Herbert looked on, Lahyani got down from his chair and begged Kyrgios to put more effort into his tennis with the now-famous words, “I want to help you. I know this is not you. You are great for tennis.”

Lahyani may have had the right intentions, but he got one thing wrong: Kyrgios has not been great for tennis. Or at least the tanking, swearing, racquet-smashing, imaginary-vengeance-seeking version of him hasn’t. Sure, when he’s on his game he can regale the spectators with his incredible skill and wizardry, bringing new fans into the fold. But the truth is that a majority of the time he is not on his game, preferring to substitute intensity and excellence with indifference and petulance. And that’s a terrible advertisement for the sport whichever way you look at it.

Would it be wrong on our part to ridicule him for his behaviour, to laugh in derision every time he tanks? Until a couple of days ago, I would’ve said it wasn’t wrong; that he deserved it all. But in light of what he said to Australian newspaper Canberra Times yesterday, I believe it may be time for a rejig of the Nick Kyrgios Story.

“I was obviously struggling with a couple of things on and off the court this year, so it hasn’t been easy,” Kyrgios said in a rare moment of vulnerability. “But I’m starting to see some psychologists and trying to get on top of my mental health.”

You don’t have to be a victim of mental health issues yourself to recognise that what Kyrgios said was extraordinarily brave. It takes guts to admit that there are issues beyond mere training or physical fitness that are hampering you; the moment you come out and say it, you put yourself at risk of being judged for something that you have little to no control over. And yet Kyrgios, the man who has been considered a master of deflection and a flag-bearer of denial all these years, still went ahead and did it.

In some ways, this revelation hasn’t really come as a surprise. On several occasions in the past, he has given us reason to suspect that there was something more than just Class A nastiness behind his shenanigans. But without any confirmation – either from himself or his team – we couldn’t know for sure. And those suspicions remained just that: suspicions.

We know better now. We know that every time he tanks, there might be something eating at his head which we can’t possibly imagine enduring. We know that every time he needlessly attacks an opponent or an umpire, he might be struggling with an avalanche of emotions that are just not humanly possible to manage. We know that every time he morosely expresses his lack of interest in tennis, he might be screaming his lungs out on the inside.

Even the injuries that Kyrgios so frequently suffers might be related to his psychological issues. Fibromyalgia, or the increase in pain sensitivity, is a common byproduct of mental health disorders, as are psychosomatic illnesses. Kyrgios’ mood swings, indifference, guilt (he’s been known to say things like “I’m not good enough,” and “I keep letting people down”) and lack of motivation could all have their root in the underlying mental demons that have been plaguing him all this while.

This is not an excuse for his occasionally jerk-like behaviour, especially the abhorrent dig at Wawrinka. But it does provide an explanation, and also a hope for a cure.

“I probably left it a little too long. But I’ve been doing that and I feel more open about talking about it, I don’t feel like I’ve got to hide that sort of stuff anymore,” he added while speaking to Canberra Times.

Kyrgios is still just 23, which in tennis terms is barely above nappy-changing age. The fact that he thinks he has ‘left it a little too long’ suggests he knows the gravity of the problem, and that he is truly sorry for his past actions. But someone needs to tell him that he hasn’t left it too long; with the right treatment, he could well go on to craft a great career for himself.

No matter what you may have thought of Kyrgios as a person all this while, you can’t deny that he is a freak talent – arguably one of the most gifted players to have arrived on the scene since Roger Federer. There’s always been a feeling in tennis circles that if Kyrgios put his mind to the task, he’d be a world-beater. So if he does conquer his inner demons and become more focused on the court, what’s stopping him from becoming a multiple Grand Slam champion? Nothing, really.

It is important to remember too, however, that there is more to life than tennis. Kyrgios has repeatedly said in the past that he likes basketball more than tennis. And you know what? That’s perfectly alright. If he wants to play basketball or even Pokemon Go instead of tennis, that’s entirely his call.

Kyrgios doesn’t owe anyone a glittering career in tennis. If he achieves great things in the sport, that would be to his credit. And if he doesn’t, well, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

“I’ve got to go out there and just be happy and enjoy myself and tennis. I think when everything lines up in my life, tennis will take care of itself. I’m just trying to enjoy myself again and get ready for a big 2019.”

Based on those words alone, there seems to be no doubt that Kyrgios is committed to the cause. But some have expressed reservations about the genuineness of his words, mainly because in the past he has occasionally failed to follow up on his promises. In late 2017, for instance, he penned a moving description of his new purpose in life, which seemed thoroughly at odds with his subsequent antics on the court.

“I know what it’s all for now. You’ve probably heard me say a few times over the years that I don’t want tennis badly enough. But when I’m working on the NK Foundation and our Melbourne facility, I cast my mind forward to all the disadvantaged kids I’ll be helping. I’m playing for them now,” he had said in October last year. But if he was determined to get more serious about his tennis so that he could help more underprivileged children get the help they needed, that didn’t show in the performances he put up in 2018.

Should we doubt him again now that he has opened up about his mental health? We could, but we shouldn’t.

The need for a transparent discussion on mental health has never been stronger than it is now. Millions of people all over the world are suffering from the crippling effects of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, but they are still unable to get the treatment they need – because even though we are in 2018, we haven’t yet gotten rid of the stigma and dismissiveness with which we look at mental illness.

So now is not the time to cast aspersions on Kyrgios’ intentions. Instead, now is the time to truly make a difference through patience and understanding. The sport of tennis has a unique opportunity – it can teach the world how to deal with mental health problems, and it can also help an extraordinary talent reach the heights he is destined for. All it needs to do is express support for Kyrgios as he goes through his journey of treatment and self-discovery.

As part of the tennis world, we have a job on our hands right now. And the first step? Vowing never to laugh at Kyrgios again.


Updated Date: Nov 09, 2018 15:21 PM

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