Play a team sport and you are socialized into some form of reality. Even if you’re the best shooting guard in your city, you need to work with four other players. Even if you’re the greatest number one draft pick the world has ever seen, you’re still a rookie. At least to some degree, you will be treated like that by veterans, those more experienced teammates invested in helping you learn what it means to be part of something greater than yourself.
None of that communal gestalt is the case in tennis. A world class tennis player is fiercely independent, frequently distrustful, extensively cocooned—and along with that, often unattuned to how he or she comes across to others. “The emotional growth,” Martina Navratilova said tonight on TC Live, “comes in bits and pieces. It’s delayed.”
Exhibit A: Nick Kyrgios—a 25-year-old wise enough to agree and even see himself as both victim and beneficiary of tennis’ solo credo.
There aren’t many tennis players who can be defined as broadly as Kyrgios: clown, artist, genius, shot-maker, contender, fighter, tanker, brat, jerk. And also, throughout these months of pandemic, a surprising voice of reason, notably when Kyrgios critiqued his fellow pros for their rather carefree approach to social distancing during the Adria Tour.
Kyrgios took ten months off from competition last year. Only now, in Australia, has he returned to active duty, along the way revealing glimmers of newfound maturity. This is quite a contrast to the longstanding, world-weary Kyrgios who has often spoke more of his affinity for basketball than the sport that’s made him a millionaire.
Kyrgios’ ambivalence towards tennis—at times downright hostility—makes it maddening to follow him. When engaged in battle, Kyrgios threatens to take the quality of the sport to exciting new levels, his game at its best a cascade of brilliant shots hit from all sides.
But the sullen Nick is a sorry sight, an insult not just globally to the game, but even more pointedly, to his native land and its unsurpassed respect for the game, devotion to full-bodied competition and commitment to exemplary sportsmanship. One can easily imagine what goes on in the heads of such legends as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, and Patrick Rafter when they see their fellow Aussie conduct himself so poorly.
But perhaps all that time away from the tennis has aided Kygrios’ emotional growth. Speaking earlier this week after his thrilling five-set win over Ugo Humbert, Kyrgios said, “I just know that every tennis player deals with negative stuff. I'm not trying to play a victim here, but I don't live under a rock. I know I caught a lot of flack for everything I do. Sometimes I don't read it, but, like, it's not hard to miss when I wake up and go to Instagram and it's just subconsciously there. My mind is taking it all in. I mean, it's not easy to just put it behind you. I have been dealing with it—I started dealing with this when I was 17, 18. I was like a child then. Do you know what I mean? I know now I try and block it out. I'm more mature and stuff, but it's still not easy.”
No wonder Kyrgios speaks so fondly of basketball. It’s as if he craves teammates who can indeed kick his precious butt into maturity.
The spotlight is on Kyrgios during the Australian Open. Here, in front of thousands at home and millions around the world, he will enter the arena and show how much he cares. My biggest concern for Kyrgios comes beyond Australian. It’s one thing to give your all when everyone is paying attention. But what will Kyrgios do when he’s on a back court at a smaller event? That’s when we’ll really see if the child is ready to become a man.