Why Marseille? Why now? In the past, Kyrgios has been known as a guy who brings it at the majors but struggles to maintain his concentration at—as his Facebook friend would call them—the minors. That trend began to reverse itself in 2015, though, when he reached his first final (on clay in Estoril) and played well through the fall, while going just 4-3 at the last three Slams.
After watching Kyrgios lose night matches at the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2016 Australian Open, I began to wonder if he really did “love the big stage,” as we like to say. Both times—against Andy Murray in New York and Tomas Berdych in Melbourne—Kyrgios, rather than feeding off the evening-session fans, let them distract him. He looked frazzled, rather than inspired, by the moment.
By contrast, Kyrgios came to this 250-level event with no expectations at all. He had pulled out of the previous tournament, in Rotterdam, with an elbow injury.
“I didn’t really expect to win this title this week after having a couple weeks off,” Kyrgios said in Marseille. “But from the first round I started playing really well and just gained confidence as I kept winning matches.”
Perhaps it was the language barrier, or the somewhat antiseptic indoor atmosphere in Marseille, but Kyrgios didn’t chatter or engage the crowd as much as he usually does. No small distraction was allowed to turn into a big one. At times, I’ve thought Kyrgios’ serve, which is one of the most effective shots on tour, could make the game too easy for him; knowing he had that bailout weapon made him profligate with his other shots. Last week, though, his serve did what it should do: It gave him room to be aggressive in his return games. Kyrgios' backhand can still look stiff, and he still pulls the trigger as soon as possible with his forehand, but his improved return of serve was a key to his run.
Maybe Kyrgios wasn’t a full-blown “star,” the way we thought. Maybe he was a young player, like all young players these days, who needed to learn the tour ropes and slowly work his way up the ladder. On Sunday he reached the first rung.