“Just hang in there. I kept telling myself that,” Jordan Thompson said.
A few minutes earlier, he had come back from two sets down to record his first win at the Australian Open, his home Grand Slam, in January of this year. “Just try to make as many balls as possible and keep going.”
Once upon a time, these were common refrains Down Under. From the legendary champions of the 1950s and 1960s like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe, to the battle-ready standard-bearer of the 21st century, Lleyton Hewitt, Australian men’s tennis has always been about how you go about playing the game, rather than just how well you play it. Don’t draw attention to yourself, never give up, never make excuses: These were the core principles that defined the nation’s sporting ethos.
The refrain, it seems, has changed.
At Wimbledon this year, Australia’s No. 2-ranked male player at the time, Bernard Tomic, made headlines when he told reporters that he “felt a bit a bored” during his straight-set first-round defeat.
Tomic’s comments echoed those of the country’s No. 1-ranked player, Nick Kyrgios, who has admitted in the past that, all things considered, he’d rather be playing basketball.
So far this summer, Kyrgios’s body hasn’t given him much choice. At Wimbledon, he was gone after just two sets, the victim of a hip injury. On Wednesday, he made an even more rapid exit from the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.; this time a shoulder problem forced him to retire after 12 games.
But not all of the Aussie news from D.C. was dire. On the same court a few hours earlier, Thompson, a 23-year-old from Sydney who has been playing Kyrgios since they were 8, had pushed Alexander Zverev to the limit over three see-saw sets. At 6’0, Thompson was giving away six inches, 20 m.p.h. on his serve, and a lot of forehand firepower to Zverev. But he won the first set, came back from 1-4 down in the third, and led 5-4 in the third-set tiebreaker before losing the last three points.
“Hard work always pays off,” are the old-school Aussie words that Thompson lives by, and he never looks bored out there. Ranked 154th at the start of 2016, he has made steady progress since, reaching a career-high No. 63 in February and settling in the mid-70s this summer. Along the way, Thompson upset world No. 1 Andy Murray at Queen’s, and won his first three Davis Cup matches for Australia. In the quarterfinals, his surprise win over Jack Sock in the first rubber helped put the team over the top against the U.S.
Asked earlier this year if he feels any sense of responsibility being the third-ranked Aussie male, Thompson said, “I mean, a little bit, like trying to keep my cool out there, I guess. Try not to make a fool of myself...I used to get a bit carried away. I think I’m maturing and becoming pretty good.”
Thompson, in short, is a gamer who makes the most of what he’s got, and it’s hardly a surprise that Hewitt is his hero. With his baseball cap, lunch-bucket baseline game, and forthright competitiveness,Thompson is cut from the same no-frills cloth.
“I watched him as a kid. I loved the way he competed. I saw him coming back in matches,” Thompson said of Hewitt in January, after his own five-set comeback.
My point in writing about Thompson isn’t to paint him as a hard-working saint, and Kyrgios and Tomic as spoiled sinners. It’s to point out that there are different ways of finding tennis players interesting or entertaining.
We like to say that Kyrgios, antics or no antics, is good for the game because he puts fans in seats. And it’s true that, when he’s up for it, he has star quality and skill to match; anyone who watched his three-tiebreaker loss to Federer in Miami in April knows what kind of show Kyrgios is capable of putting on. While Tomic will never have Kyrgios’s fiery personality, his talent is also undeniable, and his ball control can be a thing of beauty.
Thompson, by contrast, is a grinder. He can’t hit 140-m.p.h. serves or belt leaping forehands like Kyrgios, and he can’t put a ball on a string like Tomic. But he’s not boring, either.
What makes Thompson fun to watch is the same thing that made Hewitt, at his best, fun to watch: He’s always looking for a way to win. If that means hitting one more ball back than his opponent, that’s what he’ll do. If it means keeping the ball a little lower against a tall player, he’ll try that. If it means getting to the net, he’ll find his way there, and find a way to stick a winning volley, even though it isn’t his specialty. Thompson tried all of those things against Zverev in D.C., and he didn’t end up with the win, but it was interesting to see him try.
Thompson may never be ranked as high as Kyrgios, and he isn’t going to draw overflow crowds like his controversial countryman. But even when he seems to be overmatched, Thompson can make a contest entertaining, and worth watching. That’s good for the game, too.
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