Nick Kyrgios shot a look at the Australian Davis Cup team’s bench after hitting a winning shot on Sunday. He started to jerk his arms upward, in a signal to his teammates that they should get up and give him some more support. It’s a gesture you see a lot from Kyrgios on tour. When things aren’t going well, he can end up directing a fair amount of his frustration at his own player’s box.
This time, though, Kyrgios stopped himself before a rant could begin. He may be a rebel on the every-man-for-himself ATP tour, but inside Patrick Rafter Arena in Brisbane this weekend he was surrounded by Aussie legends like Lleyton Hewitt and Tony Roche, as well as a stadium full of his countrymen. So instead of yelling at them, and fighting himself, he went back to the business at hand, which was clinching Australia’s quarterfinal Davis Cup tie against the United States.
The 21-year-old Kyrgios has obviously had his differences with his country’s tennis officials in the past. He missed last year’s Davis Cup tie against the U.S., which Australia lost, and he was absent for the Rio Olympics. His flashy style, bad-boy behavior, erratic on-court effort, and frank ambivalence about how much he even wanted to play tennis seemed to be the antithesis of the no-nonsense Aussie tennis tradition.
Four months into 2017 and all of that has changed. Kyrgios has embraced the sport and his talent, and has seen his countrymen embrace him back. He has reached three semifinals, beaten Novak Djokovic twice, and played the match of the year against Roger Federer. Against the U.S., Kyrgios lived up to his role as Davis Cup anchorman. He beat two Top 30 opponents, John Isner and Sam Querrey, in straight sets. The fact that Kyrgios was favored to win both of those matches also may have made Jack Sock a little more nervous in his opening rubber, which he lost to the Aussie No. 2, Jordan Thompson.
Most impressive was the way Kyrgios closed out Querrey, who had beaten him last month in Acapulco. This time Querrey went up 4-1 in the third set. In the past, and in other settings, Kyrgios may have thrown that set away or let his emotions get the best of him. This time he dug in, became more proactive with his return, and won the last five games. He fed off the energy of the crowd, his team, and especially his captain and mentor, Lleyton Hewitt. Kyrgios is 3-0 now for Australia this year, and 9-0 in sets. His presence on the team alone should give them a solid chance of winning its 29th Cup.
“Tough third set out there,” Kyrgios said after beating Querrey. “Obviously a lot of emotions close to the finish line.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of my boys,” said Hewitt, in what could be interpreted as a message to, and defense of, Kyrgios. “They’ve put so much hard work and effort into this campaign. They did absolutely everything we asked of them.”
Davis Cup isn’t the be-all and end-all of men’s tennis, the way it once was, but it still has a way of changing players’ careers for the better. Rafael Nadal won his first top-level title with Spain in 2004, before going on to win his first French Open seven months later. Novak Djokovic’s 2010 win with Serbia, and Andy Murray’s 2015 win with Great Britain, jump-started their drives to No. 1 the following seasons. The same was true for Lleyton Hewitt when he helped Australia to the title in 1999, at 18. Two years later, he was at the top of the sport. In each case, the team provided its star player with a launching pad.
Kyrgios suddenly looks poised to follow them into orbit. He may not be ready to be No. 1 just yet, and there will almost surely be more controversial incidents in his future. But in 2017, his shots have more purpose, his emotions are relatively controlled, and his serve is borderline unbreakable. His tweeners and hot dog moves once seemed to demonstrate his apathy; now they help him keep his opponent guessing. The turning point, according to some, was the criticism he received from Rod Laver after his strangely half-hearted, losing effort to Andreas Seppi at the Australian Open this January.
For the moment, Kyrgios the rebel has joined the Aussie fold, and made himself the likely successor to Laver and his fellow legends. Tennis is an individual sport, but he may be learning that it can help to feel like a team, a captain, a country, and its all-time greats have your back.