English is a very strange language for many reasons, one being the number of words which sound the same, or very similar. Two such words are “duel” and “dual.”
Professional athletes constantly face the duel between their strengths and failures. That battle, if successful, forges a dual relationship in which the mind and body work together, also known as “mind-body dualism.”
One of the foremost chicken-or-egg questions in men’s tennis right now concerns the state of Nick Kyrgios’s game. It is both spectacular and ragged, dazzling and dumpy. Kyrgios can rattle off several hot shots in a row and then disappear for four straight games, as he did in the second set of Saturday’s otherwise-thrilling razor’s edge loss to Roger Federer in the Stuttgart semifinals.
Kyrgios is the kind of player who can take Federer to a third-set tiebreaker on clay, hardcourt and grass (he did in fact secure that modest feat by going to a final-set breaker in Stuttgart), and yet receive an avalanche of criticism on #TennisTwitter. He is that polarizing, that confusing, that enigmatic. He is, fully, a puzzle. There is no escaping that conclusion.
Where one can begin to gain clarity on Kyrgios is not in the attempt to put the mind or the body first. I have my opinion (it’s the body), and others are entirely reasonable to say the mind is the problem.
What we can all agree on, regardless of which side of the mind-body fence one sits on, is that the mind and body do need to be fused for Kyrgios to reach his potential.
Maybe an erratic mind needs to snap into focus and not wander off the reservation at times. Maybe Kyrgios is stronger in his mind than many think, and he just needs to cross the threshold of fitness to the point that his body will silence lingering internal doubts he has about his stamina. Rather than insist on the primacy of the mind, or on the benefits of a more durable body, what is more constructive is to meet in the middle, acknowledge the truth on both sides, and say: “One way or the other, Kyrgios has to harness this tennis mechanism.”
To be sure, Kyrgios does not have a polished game. His forehand can use a lot of improvement. His return of serve has to be built up as well. Yet, a little perspective needs to enter the picture with Kyrgios after this match against Federer: He didn’t play poorly in the first or third sets. Set two was a trip into la-la land, but sets one and three represented what tennis fans and observers have come to expect from Kyrgios-Federer matches: first-strike tennis, razor-close scorelines, and quality in big moments. The 2017 Miami semifinal was a legitimately great match. This Stuttgart encounter wasn’t close to that elevated standard in South Florida. Yet, let’s not allow the high bar set by the Miami meeting to create the impression that this was rubbish, garbage-bin tennis.
It wasn’t A-grade ambrosia, but it wasn’t C-level trash. This was a demonstration by two players of a grass-court mindset, properly if imperfectly applied, with Kyrgios soaring in the first-set breaker and Federer locking down in the final few points of the match, minus a single error at 5-4.
If you’re going to knock Kyrgios for his deficient forehand and return — which is entirely fair — you can’t ignore or dismiss his outrageous racquet skills, generally defined as the ability to manipulate a tennis ball with all sorts of speeds, angles and placements. This match unveiled the now-familiar Kyrgios repertoire of angled passing shots, touch volleys, and deft spins which have regularly enabled Kyrgios to take Federer matches the distance. (The Laver Cup match, not part of their official ATP Tour head-to-head, was “only” a two-set match, but it did go the distance because it went into a supertiebreaker under the Laver Cup format. These guys have played four matches, all going the distance, all decided in a final-stage tiebreaker.)
If you play Federer four times on four different surfaces — clay, outdoor hardcourt, grass, and indoor hardcourt (at the Laver Cup in Prague) — and take the Swiss within 2 points of defeat all four times, you’re pretty talented beyond just your serve. No, Kyrgios is anything but a finished product, but calling him a servebot with nothing else to offer is a woefully impoverished view.
The key for Kyrgios as his still-young career moves along is to be able to handle five-set matches. Like Alexander Zverev, that is his great crucible and threshold.
Zverev and Kyrgios, though, do not face entirely the same challenges in conquering the best-of-five monster. Zverev, if he does fail at times, fails because his game is not big enough. Kyrgios fails because his game is too big, specifically when trying to red-line his second serves instead of using a loaded wide kicker with placement. Kyrgios lost hold of this match against Federer in set two when he red-lined and missed a pair of second serves. He was playing an ATP 250 semifinal, so to me, it is not supremely alarming that he took massive risks (and paid a price). However, when he gets to Wimbledon in a few weeks, that approach is less sustainable.
Is Kyrgios talented enough to get away with red-lining second serves every now and then? Yes… and he has shown he can get away with it. Yet, like the basketball player who just keeps shooting three-point shots and missing them instead of driving closer to the basket for a layup, Kyrgios shows a tendency to remain stuck in low-percentage thought processes instead of finding ways to increase margin.
Is Nick’s tennis IQ lacking? To a degree, it is undeniable that it is. Yet, I can’t shake the thought that if Nick possessed Zverev’s emerging level of stamina — on display in the just-concluded clay season — he would not make nearly as many erratic, low-percentage decisions during matches.
Is it the mind or the body? Either opinion is valid, fair and reasonable.
The basic truth of the matter for Kyrgios: He needs to harness both and bring them together. That is the whole unified secret to maximizing his career, on grass or anywhere else.