Nick Kyrgios' perplexing shell: On the Aussie's relationship with Wimbledon, the Boston Celtics, and beyondBy Jul 01, 2022
Swiatek's streak snapped; Rybakina's breakthrough; Osaka's and Sabalenka's returns: Examining the WTA's post-Wimbledon landscapeBy Jul 20, 2022
The War Within Nick Kyrgios: After the Aussie's breakthrough Wimbledon run, what's next?By Jul 11, 2022
Looking back: how a switch to 100 percent ryegrass brought Wimbledon in line with contemporary tennisBy Jul 11, 2022
Novak Djokovic, "so composed," turns a tumultuous season around at WimbledonBy Jul 11, 2022
"How am I here?": Nick Kyrgios was two sets away from winning Wimbledon—and is OK with itBy Jul 10, 2022
Elena Rybakina: From nervous wreck to Wimbledon champion in under two hoursBy Jul 09, 2022
Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina wins women's Wimbledon title, first SlamBy Jul 09, 2022
Elise Mertens announces split with coach Simon GoffinBy Jul 09, 2022
Nick Kyrgios using Australian Open doubles experience on his way to Wimbledon finalBy Jul 09, 2022
Nick Kyrgios' perplexing shell: On the Aussie's relationship with Wimbledon, the Boston Celtics, and beyond
His third-rounder against Stefanos Tsitsipas puts the spotlight back on one of the sport's main attractions.
Published Jul 01, 2022
WATCH: A revealing and straight-shooting (what else?) interview with Nick Kyrgios
As much as Nick Kyrgios fancies himself a rebel, his values remain true to tennis: supremely personal. “Self-sacrifice?” asked the writer Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead, a novel considered a high-octane ode to unbridled individualism. “But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.”
Rand’s words are a vivid contrast to the sport Kyrgios often claims to love more than tennis, basketball. Consider the motto of his favorite team, the Boston Celtics: “Ubuntu,” an African concept that emphasizes the collective body over any one person. Collectivism is rare in tennis, where a major rationale for simply playing this individual sport is to pursue and savor personal freedom. Often in Kyrgios’ case, that means freedom from the scrutiny of others.
“I just feel like people just don't give me the respect sometimes because of other things that I do,” he said on Thursday.
But in sports, actions speak far louder than words. Through two rounds at Wimbledon, Kyrgios’ racquet has spoken brilliantly. He has played electrifying, all-court tennis. The live-arm serve, the whipped forehand, the compact backhand, the feel in all parts of the court: Kyrgios’ game is a series of lasers capable of inflicting damage from and to anywhere. Make no mistake, an in-form Kyrgios is a breathtaking sight.
His SW19 start was a struggle. On No. 3 Court versus Paul Jubb, a wild card ranked No. 219, Kyrgios took 3:05 to earn a 3-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-5 victory. For the third Wimbledon in a row, Kyrgios had gone the distance to win his opener. That hurdle vaulted, Kyrgios comprehensively dismantled 23rd-seeded Filip Krajinovic on Thursday, taking just 85 minutes to earn a 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory on No. 2 Court. Kyrgios hit 50 winners to only 10 unforced errors.
Those two wins have set up a third-round blockbuster between the 40th-ranked Kyrgios and fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas. Kyrgios has won all three of their meetings (not counting a Laver Cup encounter in 2021), including their most recent match, just last month on grass in Halle. This will be the first time they’ve played one another at a major.
“I am definitely thrilled to be facing him. I respect him a lot, on the court, what he's trying to do,” said Tsitsipas. “Although he has been a little controversial in the past, I think he's playing good tennis.”
Wimbledon pressure is like none in all of tennis. Enter the grounds and you will instantly feel the resonance of iconic achievements and present possibilities. Buzzing around the tournament are this nation’s twin-poled flock of media outlets, what one local once described to me as “the classes”—analysis aimed at the erudite—and “the masses”: those raffish and sometimes lurid tabloid headlines and paparazzi photos.
Players manage Wimbledon’s pressure in different ways. Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal stayed subdued, refusing to fan any flames that would distract from the competitive mission. Others found themselves involuntarily tossed into the fishbowl, their every move dissected: teen sensation Boris Becker, local hopefuls Tim Henman, Andy Murray and, now, Emma Raducanu.
Then there are those who bridle against Wimbledon’s institutional stature and become the dream of tabloid publishers. Ilie Nastase engaged in smack-talk with officials, opponents and fans. Jimmy Connors was absent from a champion’s parade. John McEnroe’s anger about line calls triggered a national dialogue. Andre Agassi skipped the event during several of his prime years.
And now, Kyrgios. During Tuesday’s match with Jubb, Kyrgios spit in the direction of a spectator he felt was inappropriately berating him, an action that led to a $10,000 fine.
I'm extremely confident in myself. All the challenges I've overcome in my life. Proud to be up here and doing it my own way. Nick Kyrgios
“I just think spectators in general think there's just no line there anymore,” said Kyrgios. “They can just say something and they film it and then they laugh about it. It's like that could actually hurt someone's feelings. Do you know what I mean?” There were also cantankerous interactions with on-court officials.
Asked Thursday about the spitting incident, Kyrgios employed a favored verbal tactic, the emotional counter-offensive.
“Why would you be asking me a question about two days ago?” he asked. “Is it because you have no story for today?”
There followed several of the incredibly awkward moments that journalists in press conferences fear: a conflict that compels the subject to leave the room. Fortunately, this didn’t happen.
Speaking that same day with Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim and Steve Weissman, Kyrgios was thoughtful and charming, addressing such topics as his love-hate relationship with tennis, how his great tennis that afternoon had silenced the media, the chip he carries on his shoulder from a childhood as an overweight and undervalued prodigy, and his deep affinity for the Celtics.
“I’ve literally thrown tennis matches if they’ve lost,” said Kyrgios.
This was a head-scratcher. Wouldn’t a defeat motivate a competitor to try that much harder? Wouldn’t Kyrgios want to avenge his beloved Celtics? Given Kyrgios’ affection for a team sport, what is his responsibility for withdrawing from the men’s doubles to focus strictly on singles? What would the Celtics make of that?
Then again, why dare wonder too much about the Kyrgios psyche when there are more matches to be played?
“So, yeah, I'm extremely confident in myself,” said Kyrgios. “All the challenges I've overcome in my life. Proud to be up here and doing it my own way.”
Once again, pure tennis player speak: my way. As Rand wrote, “To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That's what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul—would you understand why that's much harder?”
Kyrgios is now 27 years old. Having recently spoken about his desire to retire within a few years, it’s remarkable to think it was only eight years ago when Kyrgios made a dazzling Wimbledon debut. Ranked 144th in the world, Kyrgios lit up the tournament when he upset Nadal in the round of 16. Since then, he’s only reached one other major quarterfinal (2015 Australian Open).
Were Kyrgios to be asked about this, it’s easy to imagine his counter-response: Have any of you even been good enough to play Wimbledon?
A wise man once said, “We learn to make a shell for ourselves when we are young and then spend the rest of our lives hoping for someone to reach inside and touch us.” Kyrgios has created one of the most complicated shells in recent tennis history, a push-pull tug-of-war pitting performance and fame. Might it be best for Kyrgios to jettison his social media accounts, ignore anything written about him and merely get on playing the sport he’s devoted his life to—to what? To mastering? Mostly, but not always. To running away from? Frequently, perhaps to undermine Kyrgios’ very love for it lest he let the world reach inside that thick exterior.
Kyrgios might well be intrigued to know that the person who said those words was Bill Russell, the Celtics great who led his team to 11 titles in 13 years. Here’s hoping Kyrgios cracks open his shell in all the good ways that make him so exciting to watch.