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Is Kyrgios ready for showtime?
When athletes who made it to the very top of their sport look back at their career, there are often matches which bear far more weight than others. These are not just finals of tournaments, these can be some “run of the mill” games in the context of their long career. Roger Federer points to the match he played against Pete Sampras on the Centre Court of Wimbledon in 2001 as that pivotal match for his career. It wasn’t a final, but it changed the way he viewed tennis and he realised how great he could be. With Nick Kyrgios, it seems as if he has played a numerous amount of these matches already. One thinks back to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2014. His first meeting with the then world number one Rafael Nadal. We all expected the 19 year old to show glimpses of his abundant talent but the matador from Spain would end up being too strong on such a grand stage. What transpired in that evening at SW19 was truly remarkable and bought back memories of Boris Becker in 1985. The between the legs winner he hit is still talked about today as one of the best shots ever seen and one would have expected him to kick on from that life changing day. Yet, we are here almost four years later and we are still waiting for the emergence of the enigmatic Australian on a truly global stage. Can it happen at Melbourne Park over the next fortnight?
In an interview with Mary Carillo before the US Open last year, Kyrgios made a quite extraordinary admission for a professional athlete. “I struggle to have the motivation at times to play, maybe I don’t love the game that much”. This may have been said by other athletes in the past, but for a player of this huge talent and skill, it was amazing to hear. When playing against players who have a huge reputation and are legends of the sport, the fire burns deeply for Kyrgios and he always plays his best against them. Just speak to Novak Djokovic and he will tell you that Kyrgios blew him off the court in Acapulco and Indian Wells last year. However, to play those huge stars, you often need to make it to the later stages of tournaments. In Grand Slams, these kind of matches present themselves only from the quarter finals onwards. Four rounds are spent playing players who Kyrgios is expected to beat. He is far superior in talent and skill, yet he does not seem able to make it over the line in these matches. His care free attitude works brilliantly against the top players because there is no expectation. Against the lesser ranked players, he needs to place more importance on the individual points and that will lead him to becoming successful at the majors. How can he do this?
Paul Annacone has had the pleasure of coaching two of the greatest players to grace the sport in Federer and Pete Sampras. He said something very interesting recently which could be a reason as to why Kyrgios finds it difficult to win matches consistently. “I find with the really great players that a lot of their issues stem from the fact of when to do which. Which shot to play at which moment and when to attack or defend.” So far in his career, Kyrgios has shown one way of playing in his style. The swagger and aggressive approach is evident in every one of his 172 matches so far. But, sometimes a player just doesn’t feel it on days. The timing is off and a sport that usually feels incredible fun can become an exhausting ordeal. It is at moments like this when champions show their mettle. Winning on days when they are not at their best. Kyrgios can sometimes fall into the trap that the world is against him and that makes him almost tank matches at times. Contrary to my earlier point about the Australian playing his best against the top players, he had a poor showing against Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2016 where John McEnroe accused him of basically giving the match away. In order to get rid of this issue, it may be the case that he needs a coach who is able to demand the best from him on a daily basis. In the Laver Cup, we all saw him play outstandingly well under the tutelage of McEnroe, maybe that relation could rekindle itself in the future? Now, that would be a spectacle and a half.
Even with a favourable draw, it is highly unlikely that Kyrgios will walk through the draw and arrive on 29 January as the new Australian Open champion. Stranger things have happened in sport, but this looks beyond the realms of possibility. Despite that, expect big things from the enigma this year, he may finally realise his gifts on the biggest of stages.