Nick Kyrgios, the infamous ‘clown for the circus’, is also a travelling theatre of tennis. But the play was put on hold as he did not want to travel during the coronavirus pandemic. He became, in his own words, ‘a part-time player.’
Yet when it came to Wimbledon, the fabled stage where he made his first major bow as a teen prodigy, even the irreverent Aussie couldn’t resist getting on a plane. Fittingly, his comeback at the All England Club was a long-drawn, two-day, five-set match that showed that there’s nothing part-time about the talent he possesses.
The 26-year-old’s last singles match win, almost five months ago at the Australian Open, was a five-set rollercoaster against a seeded Ugo Humbert. In a twist of fate, his opening match at Wimbledon was against the same opponent, now highly-rated and a recent grass-court champion.
But once again, it was the flair of the unseeded Kyrgios that triumphed over form as he knocked out the 21th seed and Halle champion in a dramatic encounter that ended in extra time. The world No 60 won 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 9-7 in a match held over from Tuesday evening when the final set was tantalisingly poised at 3-3 in the final set.
While Kyrgios is no stranger to rollercoaster Grand Slam matches, what made this battle stand out was that he fought as the clear underdog. He was a player out for form and match practise, on grass after two years up against a younger, in-form player. External elements like the weather made the odds worse and his constant chattering about the grass not being quick just added to the usual issues that make him yield. Yet, when it came to the moment that mattered, Kyrgios managed to put aside his physical rust and mental rumblings to play tennis at a level few of his peers can.
“Not bad for a part-time player,” he joked during the on-court interview, “Ugo is an incredible kid and I knew I was a massive underdog.”
Logically, this win should count as an upset given Humbert, who beat Andrey Rublev in the Halle final, was one of the form players. In fact, the left-hander was the cleaner player for large patches of the match and even looked more solid on serve in the fifth set.
Yet, Kyrgios – with a tally of 23 aces and 51 winners – kept himself in the match with just his supreme touch and a raw hunger to win.
After going down two sets to one, he even served out a game which took just 43 seconds. He fired backhand bullets and scrambled for points when the winners didn’t work. He rallied when was two points away from defeat, he got back after an injury scare when he fell in the 13th game, he even saved break points in the final game to win. He did it all despite being physically exhausted by the previous day’s battle because.
These are not tennis things he always is able to do. And yet he did this all with a languid grace and stage presence that lit up the stadium, even at curfew on Tuesday night, and made sure the support was all for him.
It was precisely the kind of performance that makes him such a crowd-puller despite his often problematic antics. And the crowd, back in full force at a Grand Slam after a long time, was all for the entertainment.
The Aussie is well aware of the following his tennis commands and in a rare, candid press interaction said that it’s the fans that make him want to give his best.
“I’m doing my best. So I’ll continue to go out there and try and give them a show and just try and bring that different aspect of tennis. A lot of people wanted me to play because of that. I’m here, I’m trying to give you what I’ve got. Yesterday the crowd was thanking me. They’re like, Thank you, Nick, for keeping me so entertained.”
This was also what made him decide to travel in the first place, something he avoided admitting that bubble life is not something he is mentally prepared to handle.”Wimbledon is one of my favourite events and I heard there was going to be a crowd so it was an easy decision to come here.”
When Covid-19 shut down global sport soon after, Kyrgios emerged as a voice of reason amid the follies of players in Europe and was involved with charity work back home. Perhaps that time away has brought in a maturity that was previously missing. Or perhaps this is just, to borrow a phrase that confounded Roger Federer, the absence has just made us grow fonder of him.
Of course, Kyrgios still chuntered about at changeover and was generally cross during the match. But that is just how he functions. If he can channel that emotion in his game, he is capable of great things. He knows that and so do the fans. Whether that is something he can do consistently remains to be seen, but for now, the circus and the theatre are both back in play.