It was one match—a first-rounder against 53rd-ranked Lorenzo Sonego, in front of a partisan Aussie crowd—but it offered a glimpse at what tennis' ultimate redemption story could look like.
Nick Kyrgios has looked like a man who hates the sport he plays even more than Andre Agassi detailed in Open. He has been reckless to the point of absurdity. Tennis is a game of lines, and Kyrgios has crossed them all. He has sounded, at times but not always, like a player who loathes most of the planets in the sport's orbit: the fans, his opponents, and the nature of the game. He has been sarcastic and caustic to the point of embarrassment.
There is no telling when, or if, that version Kyrgios will surface again. Truth be told, we haven't seen it in a while. But as anyone who watched him combust last summer in Cincinnati can attest, it's there.
But as interviewer John McEnroe pointed out after the still-popular Aussie's 6-2, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (1), win on Tuesday night, Kyrgios is coming off playing three team events, the type of competition that brings out the proverbial best in the talented 24-year-old—which would seem to be as good a preparation for the Australian Open as anything. (McEnroe forgot that after Laver Cup—where the two were allies on Team World—Kyrgios played one match at last September's Zhuhai ATP tournament.)
"Today was awesome. I played really well," Kyrgios said. "I hadn't played too many matches just for myself the last couple months. It was good to get the first one out of the way."
Kyrgios has reached a quarterfinal at his home Slam, to go along with a fourth-round run two years ago. But you could argue that, given his immense support in Melbourne and familiarity with the local conditions, the Australian Open has one been Kyrgios' most disappointing tournaments. He's only been past the third round twice in six main-draw appearances, and has lost before the third round in two of the last three years. His draws haven't been the kindest, and he's been competitive for the most part, even in defeat. But the epilogues of recent Australian Opens have left me wanting more from the Canberra native.
Canberra, of course, is one of the most affected cities by the bushfire crisis that has engulfed Australia, as well as the Australian Open. Relief efforts are everywhere, and Kyrgios deserves plenty of credit for his words and actions during the ATP Cup, and at the pre-tournament Rally for Relief. Individually, Kyrgios is donating money for every ace he hits, and spreading the word about the crisis; collectively, with the tennis community, he's helped raise over $5 million.
The latest fundraising pledge came from McEnroe, during the aforementioned on-court interview. (Watch it in full above.) He told Kyrgios that he'll donate $1,000 for each set he wins the rest of the tournament—a potential windfall of $18,000. The crowd responded with thunderous sound; Kyrgios responded with a smile, and a loss of words. He appeared genuinely touched by the gesture.
"It was awesome," Kyrgios said. "Obviously I felt like he wanted to help. I mean, I'm sure a lot of people appreciate that."
A cynic might say that, ironically, Kyrgios' penchant for not winning sets could be seen as the impetus for McEnroe's move. Whatever the case, there are worse things to be motivated for than a cause as important as this one. And in this match, already looked motivated. It's a great sign for the player, the tournament and the country, all of which can benefit from a deep Kyrgios run.
"I'm not even thinking about my next round," Kyrgios said when asked if he felt added pressure. "I'm going to do all the things right tomorrow, recover, go again. Hopefully I can keep serving well. Hopefully I can win more sets."
And if that comes to pass, maybe Kyrgios should consider skipping Zhuhai, Cincinnati and every other tour event, and just play team tennis and the majors.