When the Australian Nick Kyrgios burst onto the tennis scene as a teenager in the mid-2010s, he seemed, in at least one way, to have arrived from a different era. At the time, a triad of historically dominant mega-champions — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer — dominated men’s tennis. (Things haven’t changed all that much since, though Federer is mostly out of the picture now.) Djokovic was already disdained by every non-Serbian crowd by that point, but comity mostly prevailed among the three rivals; any tension between them was confined to elliptical comments at press conferences. That ethic of staid professionalism, the norm for a few decades now, has meant that while the golden age of men’s tennis has been thrilling on the court, it has been quite dull off of it.
Kyrgios is more like a boorish head case from the old school of the 1970s and ’80s — the tennis-boom era of notorious troublemakers like Ilie “Nasty” Năstase, Jimmy Connors, and, of course, John McEnroe (who, as a commentator, frequently makes light of his terrible behavior back in the day). Kyrgios blatantly tanks matches. He loses focus, jabs with umpires constantly, and finds a way to blame his self-inflicted losses on court conditions, umpires — anyone but himself. He makes spiteful comments toward fellow players, including Nadal and Djokovic, and once disclosed that “I don’t really like tennis.”
But Kyrgios also possesses undeniably incandescent talent. And for a while, when it looked like his brashness might have been more youthful indiscretion than fixed personality trait, he proved an irresistible object of fascination for both fans and magazine writers hunting for The Next Big Thing in tennis. He earned profiles in the New York Times Magazine in 2016 and the New Yorker in 2017, and was the subject of endless press attention and speculation.
There was just one problem: Kyrgios was never actually all that great. Which is to say he was never all that consistent — an absolute necessity to reach the sport’s promised land. Kyrgios ranked 13 in the world at the end of 2016, but has never come close to the top ten again, plateauing in the 30s and 40s in recent years and making early exits from most of the biggest tournaments. There have been not-infrequent moments of brilliance when Kyrgios reminds everyone what he’s capable of when everything’s clicking. But they’ve been increasingly few and far between.
Kyrgios has been open about one reason for his stagnation. After losing to Nadal at Wimbledon three years ago, in a hyped rematch of his memorable win against the Spaniard there in 2014, Kyrgios said, “I’m a great tennis player, but I don’t do the other stuff. I’m not the most professional guy. I won’t train day in, day out. I won’t show up every day.” Points for honesty — and Kyrgios is under no obligation to fulfill his potential, as much as fans and commentators might want him to. But never has so much ink been spilled on a guy who, before 2022 — he is now 27 — had never made it past the quarterfinals of a major. The tortured genius routine isn’t as fascinating sans the “genius” part; the magazine profiles aren’t so frequent anymore.
And yet, improbably, Kyrgios now finds himself in the best position of his career.
He has made it all the way to the finals of Wimbledon — the greatest stage in the game — as an unseeded player, and in typically disruptive fashion. During his five-set first-round victory over Paul Jubb, he spit in the direction of a fan he said was heckling him and was fined $10,000. In the third round, he employed every mind game in the book to rattle the number-four seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, managing to play brilliantly as well. (He also earned another $4,000 fine for using an obscenity against the Greek star.)
Despite some shoulder pain, Kyrgios kept things mostly drama-free in his next two matches, against Brandon Nakashima and Cristian Garin — formidable foes, but hardly world-beaters. After the Nakashima match, Kyrgios said that he was able to calm himself down even when he wasn’t playing his best, an ability that has eluded him in the past. He has been open about his mental-health struggles, and attributes an improved mindset to therapy. It’s good that Kyrgios has found more personal balance, even if he’s still up to the same old on-court antics. And perhaps a more centered Kyrgios can be a more consistent one?
The first few rounds have certainly been a refreshing reminder of Kyrgios’s prowess. When he’s really feeling it, he may be the most fun player to watch on tour, with his booming serve, seemingly effortless rocket-ship forehand, and propensity for low-percentage circus shots that few others would dare. (One of Kyrgios’s specialties is the underhand serve, which he has helped popularize on tour.)
Still, Kyrgios has not faced any truly elite players except for Tsitsipas. And the real test was to come in the semifinals against Nadal, against whom he has notched more than one memorable win. The match would be a mouth-watering meeting between the gentle, beloved champion and the in-rare-form class clown and bully. But it wasn’t meant to be: Nadal pulled out of the tournament on Thursday with an abdominal tear. In a more alarming development, news broke that Kyrgios is facing assault allegations from an ex-girlfriend in Australia.
Now Kyrgios faces the toughest test of all on grass: Djokovic, who has won the last three Wimbledons, and is a heavy favorite on Sunday. Maybe a match between two players fans love to hate is a fitting finale for this strange version of the tournament. In April, officials banned all Russian and Belarusian players from playing, in a wrongheaded decision that drew criticism across the tennis world. In retaliation, the ATP tour announced that it would not award any points for Wimbledon, meaning that results won’t count toward anyone’s ranking — thus turning the fortnight into a high-profile exhibition. Some top-ranked players had to bow out thanks to COVID, and now Kyrgios has made it to the final Sunday — an outcome no one was predicting.
Amazingly, he has beaten Djokovic in both of their only two matches, though those victories came in 2017. (Another tantalizing facet of Kyrgios’s game: he performs very well against the absolute best players in the game; he’s got a 17-16 record versus the current Top Ten. It’s the rank-and-file he struggles with.) Also amazingly, Kyrgios and the man he once said has a “sick obsession” with being liked seem to have patched things up recently, in part because Kyrgios defended Djokovic when his refusal to get vaccinated led to an international kerfuffle at the Australian Open this year. If Kyrgios can play at a high level in a major final against the toughest mental player in the game, it would be a huge breakthrough for him, even if it doesn’t boost his ranking. And if he can win Wimbledon — even this bizarro Wimbledon — it would be a breakthrough for the game that could really use some new major contenders beyond Djokovic, Nadal, and Daniil Medvedev. Becoming a major champion wouldn’t make Kyrgios’s stunts any more defensible, but it would certainly make the game more dynamic. Let a thousand magazine profiles bloom.