WASHINGTON – Nick Kyrgios is the most polarizing player in tennis. That’s not an opinion, nor a question, nor an exaggeration. He’s not your prototypical tennis player and he is perfectly okay with that.
This week he played in Washington D.C.’s Citi Open in his first action of the hard court season. Immediately it was noticeable that there was a fresh vibe and excitement around Kyrgios. Not only was it his confidence he gained on the path to a title, but it was also a persona that has not been seen before from the 24-year-old. Dare say it appears to come from new maturity and a better understanding of his role within the sport.
He's at a point in his career where he wants to go down a new path and already he's begun "cleaning up some bad habits."
On the court, he hits shots in-between his legs, lacks effort in certain parts of matches, among other antics. Off the court, he is not afraid to let his opinion be known to others nor does he utilize a coach. As a result, everyone has an opinion of the Aussie, good or bad.
This week in D.C. was no different. Every match he played had at least one ‘tweener’ shot through his legs. Underarm serves were aplenty. There was even your common viral Kyrgios moment when he chucked his water bottle at the umpire stand, then explained to the umpire that it slipped out of his hand. He also delivered a new pair of shoes to one of his opponents while playing.
During the championship match against world No. 9 Daniil Medvedev it was at full display. Tweener shots, underhanded serves, behind the back shots, almost all of which he won. It helped he didn’t need to break Medvedev. He didn’t have to worry too much about back pain that crept up in the first set. He won every service game and then took both tiebreaks, 7-6(6), 7-6(4).
"We all know how Nick can play when he wants to, and this week I think he wanted to play," Medvedev said in the championship ceremony.
His talent is not new, with his championship he is 5-1 against top-10 opponents in 2019. He also is the only player in tennis history to beat each of ‘The Big Three’ – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – in their first meetings. Earlier in the week, Tsitsipas considered him one of the most underrated players in the world.
A difference though – at least for this week – is with how Kyrgios is now handling himself. Even he said this week he felt like a "traditional tennis player". Every time he plays with less effort, he says it’s now to throw off his opponents, as he did in the second set of his semifinal match against Stefanos Tsitsipas. His tweener shots on lobs are done not because he is lazy but because he believes they’re completed at a better percentage than a back-facing return.
“It’s his way of feeling comfortable when he’s on the court. He’s entertaining people,” Tsitsipas said after his loss to Kyrgios in the semifinals. “I believe we need people like him in the game, otherwise everything becomes too serious.”
At Rock Creek Park this past week he was one of the star attractions. He played in seven matches, six singles and one doubles, with six of those matches played on the premier court of the tournament. He’s getting the sought-after night sessions and hosting kid’s days. Spots that are not custom for an un-seeded player not from the United States. Every time we saw Kyrgios it was either a sellout or close to it.
“A lot of people can relate to me. I have a massive following as well. I’m playing for a lot of people out there, not just myself,” Kyrgios said earlier in the week. “Like it or not, I’m a massive role model. I’m doing all these kid’s days at every single tournament. They’re picking me for a reason. I know deep down there’s a lot of kids that look up to me and I need to be better.”
Better, in referring to his past behavior that has given him his notoriety.
But this week he’s pulled back the curtain a little bit, in addition to mentioning he needs to be better. He says he’s not directly challenging the tennis establishment that many believe he is. He claims he’s not intentionally being disrespectful. He admits he has made bad decisions in his past and even encouraged another young player to avoid the mistakes he’s made.
He goes about tennis his own way and that’s different than what many fans are accustomed to.
"I've just been working really hard on and off the court to try and be better as a person and as a tennis player," Kyrios said after winning the championship. "This has been one of the best weeks in my life, not only on the court but just, in general, I feel like I've made major strides and I'm just going to take it one day at a time and hopefully I can continue on this on this new path."
“I was a very overweight kid. Got told by coaches, teachers that I wasn’t going to be very good at what I chose to do, which was tennis, and I think people can just relate to people telling you you can’t do anything, and I feel like I’m proving a lot of people wrong,” Kyrgios said when asked about who’s he’s inspiring. “I’ve beaten every single one of the best tennis players in the world doing it my way and I’m never going to stop doing that.”
Entering the tournament, much of the excitement surrounding Kyrgios was his doubles pairing with the sixth-ranked player in the world in Tsitsipas. The unique combination put together by tournament owner Mark Ein was part of his plan to highlight doubles matches for the event.
No one was concerned about Kyrgios on the singles side of the draw. He was an unseeded player in a draw filled with up-and-comers looking to grab a notable title. Turns out there should have been more attention on Kyrgios as he filled stadiums and marched to the tournament Final.
“I always knew that I could produce good tennis, but the problem with me was not being able to do it every day and every week. I would go missing for a month and then show up to a tournament and maybe play well,” Kyrgios told reporters after his semifinal win over Tsitsipas, the No. 1 seed in the event. “I think it came from within that I just wanted to start being better as a tennis player and as a person.”
"I'm trying not to change myself, you know, playing ping-pong with kids before I play, you know, I don't want to lose sight of who I am. I want to continue to have fun on court and be the entertainer I am. But it's a day-by-day process," Kyrgios said post-title.
Becoming a champion, again, at a 500-level event is a great start. It is his second title of 2019, sixth of his career and only his third at this level (two steps down from a major). Great timing for him with the U.S. Open right around the corner. The result puts him in position to become a seeded player at the year’s last major. His win will vault him to No. 27 in the world.
His talent is undeniable, as exhibited in the Citi Open. Many forget that he quickly rose to a No. 13 world ranking back in 2016 with a slew of titles. There have just always been obstacles when it comes to his consistency, most of them self-inflicted.
Success is not going to come down to his abilities on the court; it will come from his mental fortitude. Kyrgios even openly admitted that he has a long way to go even after winning the Citi Open title and this is just a step.
At long last, though, it appears Kyrgios has a new perspective on how he plays tennis which benefits everyone.
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