‘I’ve got to go play tennis’: Inside the tortured mind of Nick Kyrgios

In March this year, Nick Kyrgios took his seat at a production meeting before his debut appearance on Australian Ninja Warrior, the Channel Nine program in which ridiculously fit contestants navigate an obstacle course in the fastest possible time.

Among those sitting at the table were hosts Ben Fordham, Rebecca Maddern and sideline commentator Shane Crawford.

Nick Kyrgios is always “box office”, but which one will turn up to the US Open, starting Monday?Credit:Getty

Kyrgios had been identified as the replacement for England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, who’d appeared on previous series but wasn’t available this year.

As one of the producers worked through the back stories of the competitors featuring that day, Fordham noticed Kyrgios nodding along.

“You know all this already do you, buddy?” Fordham said, lobbing a playful hand grenade in Kyrgios’ lap.

“Yeah, I do,” Kyrgios replied.

Kyrgios on Australian Ninja Warrior with Ben Fordham, Rebecca Maddern and Shane Crawford earlier this year.Credit:Nigel Wright

“What can you tell me about this one, then?”

“Well, this guy’s a sparkie, it’s his first time in the competition, his mother was a champion netballer …”

Maddern and Fordham looked at each other, both stunned.

“He’d already studied all the briefing notes,” Fordham recalls.

“For a big name like Nick Kyrgios, who doesn’t need to be a sideline commentator on Ninja Warrior, he knew all the detail. For a bloke not known for his preparation, he was ready to roll. He didn’t want to embarrass himself.”

Over the next few days of production, Kyrgios became part of the team, joking with cameramen and make-up artists like he’d known them his whole life.

In 2019, on his radio program on 2GB, Fordham had branded Kyrgios the country’s “biggest tool”. The man he came to know on the set of Ninja Warrior was entirely different.

“He wasn’t a celebrity that flashes a smile and cracks jokes to impress people,” Fordham says. “Some people put on a show in front of the cameras, but they’re different on the other side of it. He wasn’t. He was genuine. Everyone loved Nick.”

When production was completed, Kyrgios was chatting with the crew, still on a high. The idea of celebrating at a nightclub was raised. He was up for that.

Kyrgios will face Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round of the US Open.Credit:Getty

“What’s next on the cards for you after all this?” Fordham asked.

Kyrgios’ demeanour changed. His shoulders slumped, he dipped his head and let out a long, sombre sigh.

“I’ve got to go and play tennis.”

Kyrgios didn’t end up playing in a tournament in Dubai as scheduled. He’s played just seven singles matches since, including a third-round loss at Wimbledon.

“People can hate him, but they still turn up to watch him because he’s ridiculous talent. Or see him lose his shit.”

He starts his US Open campaign on Tuesday against Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut, and it would be foolish to predict how his tournament will play out. The only guarantee is that he’ll display the full range of emotions, tortured by his craft one moment, feeding off the energy of the New York crowd the next.

The lead-up has been typically funky.

He practiced in front of a thousand spectators in Florida late last week, such is his following in the US, but then provoked a chorus of boos when he withdrew just moments before his match against Andy Murray at the Winston-Salem Open last Monday.

He then posted an image on his Instagram account of a cartoon character smoking a cigarette alongside the caption “never regret anything that made you smile”. When he arrived in New York, he asked via social media if anyone wanted to be his practice partner.

Like most people, I’ve never found this part of the Kyrgios circus particularly interesting. There’s nothing “box office” — the modern-day term ascribed to sportspeople considered must-see viewing — about it. At best, it’s click-bait fodder.

What makes Kyrgios so captivating is the way he plays his tennis, constantly at war with himself as much as his opponent, his natural gifts competing against a volatile mind and often under-prepared body. Sometimes he wins, often he loses, but it’s never dull.

Most people can identify the moment Kyrgios became “box office”: 4.10pm on a warm London afternoon on July 1, 2014, in the fourth round at Wimbledon, when a 19-year-old Kyrgios coolly thumped a 220km/h ace down the middle, right past world No.1 Rafael Nadal, who was left nailed to the grass of centre court.

“We’re watching a young boy turn into a man,” John McEnroe observed as Kyrgios stormed to a four-set victory and into the quarter-finals. “We have a new star on our hands in the tennis world.”

Kyrgios lost to Milos Raonic two days later. That’s when a call came from the office of Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike and one of sport’s most influential people.

Knight arranged for a private jet to fly Kyrgios and his entourage to Nike’s headquarters in Oregon for a tour of the premises.

Legend has it that Knight only ever mixes with the premium athletes on Nike’s books. The ones that require just one name: LeBron, Tiger, Roger.

The message from Knight to the kid who’d just upset Nadal was clear: we want you to be our next superstar.

When Kyrgios arrived home in suburban Canberra, to the house in which he was raised, paparazzi were sleeping out the front awaiting his arrival.

That was seven years ago. The world was at his feet. For whatever reason, Kyrgios has never quite taken the next step in his size 11.5 Nikes.

“What’s taking the next step, though?” asks Sam Groth, a former Davis Cup teammate and now commentator for Nine. “Winning grand slams or becoming the box office superstar everyone wants to watch whether you like him or not? Not everyone needs to be Roger Federer. It’s hard for people to understand that when you have that opportunity put in front of you like Nick does. He mightn’t finish with a stack of grand slams and records — but he’ll have a lot of zeros in the bank.”

There are many zeros already. Kyrgios has an estimated net worth of $13 million. His appearance fees for ATP 500 and 250 events are said to be enormous because organisers know he puts bottoms on seats. He has a growing portfolio of sponsors, including Nike.

Kyrgios has certainly been “box office” for Nine — publisher of this masthead — at the Australian Open in the last two years. An average national audience of about 1.2 million viewers have watched him play. The peak is 1.8 million.

Nick Kyrgios draws a crowd wherever ge goes.Credit:Getty Images

He consistently outrates matches featuring Federer, Nadal and Ash Barty. Last year’s fourth-round match against Nadal peaked at 3.362 million.

“People can hate him, but they still turn up to watch him because he’s ridiculous talent,” Groth says. “Or see him lose his shit.”

But at what cost? Kyrgios has talked out loud on several occasions about his love-hate relationship with the game. In many respects, he seems trapped in a profession that’s given him and his family the golden ticket even though he seems like he wants to be doing something else.

His comments after his 6-4, 6-4 loss to Mackenzie McDonald in the Citi Open in Washington earlier this month revealed a new emotion: apathy.

Kyrgios during a straight-sets loss to Mackenzie McDonald earlier this month.Credit:Getty

“I feel like I actually enjoyed my tennis more when it was so up and down,” he told reporters. “Like you see me today: I’m losing and I’m barely getting angry. I actually miss the days when I was losing and carrying on and I was getting fined and I was throwing my racquets. That just meant that I just cared a lot. Like, I actually cared what was happening. Now I lose and I’m actually happy for the other guy. Back then, I couldn’t stand the other guy.”

There’s not much sympathy for troubled sportspeople in these uncertain, COVID-stricken times, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer.

Tennis is particularly brutal. Naomi Osaka’s three-part documentary on Netflix is a harrowing account of an athlete railroaded into tennis by her parents, who were struggling financially.

It exposes the lonely, cold existence of the tennis professional on tour.

The struggles of Naomi Osaka in recent times have shone a light on the sometimes lonely existence of professional tennis.Credit:Netflix/AP

“I don’t really have the champion mentality, which is someone who can deal with not playing 100 per cent,” Osaka says, which is strange to hear because she’s won four grand slams.

Osaka is managed by Stuart Duguid of sports management giant IMG, which also had Kyrgios on its books.

“Tennis is an especially challenging mental sport for a variety of reasons,” Duguid says. “It’s an individual sport obviously, so it can be very lonely. It’s very nomadic as well so for someone who enjoys home as much as Nick that’s not ideal. The COVID virus and bubble life, at certain events, has exacerbated all of this and that’s why we have seen high-profile athletes open up more recently.”

A year ago, Duguid engaged Sydney-based media and marketing consultant Tristan Hay to help look after Kyrgios’ affairs in Australia.

“The few people that know Nick really well will all say the same thing. He is deeply loyal and considerate to those he keeps close.”

Hay has worked with the full spectrum of sportspeople, from rugby league players to NBA superstars. He says he’s never worked with anyone like Kyrgios.

They didn’t meet in a flashy penthouse expected of a wealthy tennis player. Nor an expensive restaurant. Instead, it was his parents’ home where Kyrgios still sleeps in the same bedroom he had as a boy.

“Like everyone who meets Nick the first time, I was really nervous,” Hay says. “Because you don’t know what to expect. The first time we met, his mum opened the door with a big smile on her face and welcomed me into their family home.

“You quickly realise this guy is different to what people think of him. He’s very genuine, very humble, keeps a tight circle. The few people that know Nick really well will all say the same thing. He is deeply loyal and considerate to those he keeps close.”

Fans saw a different side to Kyrgios early last year as the Australian summer of tennis took place amid a backdrop of deadly bushfires.Credit:Getty Images

Hay won’t give away any trade secrets, but there’s been a noticeable softening of the Kyrgios persona since he’s come on board. Apart from a slew of endorsements, as well as his appearance on Ninja Warrior, Kyrgios’ media conferences are no longer as confrontational. If anything, there’s a vulnerability there, as shown after the loss in Washington.

“Nobody can ever tell Nick what to say or do,” Hay says. “But as he’s gotten older, he understands his voice carries a lot of influence when told in the right tone and through the right channels. He’s been genuine and enthusiastic about telling his story the way he wants it to be told. I think people are starting to see him in a light they haven’t seen before.”

Kyrgios’ voice is certainly hard to ignore. His social media presence is enormous. He has 1.7m followers on Instagram, the fifth biggest following of any active athlete in Australia. (David Warner, Ben Simmons, Steve Smith and Daniel Riccardo are ahead of him).

Rich Digital’s Athfluence Index looks at an athlete’s reach, engagement, public sentiment and awareness as well as other factors.

Australian cricketer Marnus Labuschagne has the top engagement rate of any athlete in Australia. Kyrgios sits at No.7. Before the bushfires in January 2020, when Kyrgios used his social media channels to raise $90,000, he was ranked 35th.

Imagine, then, how “box office” Kyrgios could be if he challenged for a grand slam title? Last year, he casually said he’ll never win one, doesn’t want to win one and would rather be “relatable” to the public.

Cut to the scene of his second-round match at Wimbledon when, on match point, he played up to the crowd before asking a fan where he should place his serve. (He won the point).

Groth remembers Kyrgios’ appearance at Wimbledon in 2014 a little differently to most. Kyrgios had beaten him in the final of the Nottingham Challenger to earn a wildcard entry.

Countryman Sam Groth (centre) had a unique viewpoint of Nick Kyrgios’ Wimbledon rise in 2014: he was the man vanquished earlier that month as the Canberran earned a wildcard which led to his arrival on the most famous court of all.Credit:Getty

“It was a sliding door moment,” Groth says. “We all saw the talent in him them. But at that stage people didn’t see him as the talent that draws a packed stadium. That win over Nadal allowed people to see the weapons that he carries. That’s when he started to become ‘box office’.”

Fans gravitate towards Kyrgios — but what about other players on the tour?

“He divides opinion in the locker-room as well,” Groth says. “I don’t think he’s disliked. He gets on well with Andy Murray, but someone like Nadal struggles because he’s the guy who leaves everything out there and can’t understand why someone wouldn’t do that.

“I was never going to win a grand slam, but I always wanted to be the best I could, so I do struggle seeing someone who has the ability not wanting want to do that. At the same time, players now realise it’s not just about tennis, it’s about entertainment. Nick’s very much in touch with that — and paid accordingly. Name a stadium in which Nick Kyrgios plays that’s never full.”

Perhaps the current generation of stars are defining success in different ways. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective. When Kyrgios isn’t at home in Canberra, he’s rolling around in his pool at his residence in the Bahamas. It reminds me of a story earlier this year about “embattled billionaire James Packer, who has been spotted with three popular Instagram models on board his $200m superyacht in the waters off Mykonos.” Embattled?

Should Kyrgios grow tired of tennis, which could happen any moment, he could return to his new calling of Ninja Warrior sideline commentator.

Not surprisingly, he copped some flak on social media for his debut performance. Fordham reckons he’ll be better for the run should he return next year.

When production finished, each member of the cast and crew was shocked to find a small gift and thank you note from Kyrgios.

“It was a Nick Kyrgios vinyl doll,” Fordham laughs. “I know I called him Australia’s biggest tool, but I’ve certainly changed my view on him. The guy you see exploding on the court is completely different to the guy away from it. He’s mature, funny, quirky. Then again, I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side on a tennis court — or sitting in his box!”

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