American team sports designate one player the Most Valuable Player – the MVP – of a season or a match. This being a country that venerates winning, the MVP is invariably picked from a winning team – I remember being astonished when Thurman Thomas of the Buffalo Bills was denied the accolade in the 1991 Super Bowl just because the team’s kicker, Scott Norwood, missed the game-deciding kick wide right.
Nick Kyrgios won’t win the Cincinnati tournament. He was defeated in three sets on Friday by Juan Martin del Potro, who played with a veteran’s assurance. Nick isn’t a veteran yet, and he played like no other player on the tour does. At least in the press room, Nick Kyrgios has been the MTAP – the Most Talked About Player – by a mile.
I watched two of Nick’s matches, his first-round win over Denis Kudla and the loss on Friday to Delpo. Nick saved a match point in the first match, down 7-8 in the third-set tiebreaker, with a 134-mph second serve – a shot that scandalized a few members of the press room, who suggested that like brown shoes with a blue suit, some things were just not done.
I missed his second-round win over Borna Coric, which finished 7-6, 0-6, 6-3 in Nick’s favor. During the second set Kyrgios was apparently unhappy with a line call. The match took place on one of the smaller outer courts on which the HawkEye challenge system is unavailable, hence the umpire’s call was unreviewable. As a way of underlining his displeasure at the circumstances, Kyrgios hit a ball out of the court. He was not the first to do this, and will not be the last. What made this demonstration of unhappiness unique was that Kyrgios directed the ball over the roof of the adjoining Center Court stand, where it apparently bounced in the aisles before coming to rest harmlessly during the match between Simona Halep and Alja Tomljanovic. In the post-match press conference, one journalist wanted Kyrgios to reflect on his actions:
Q.Going back to that second set, I’m sure no intent, you weren’t aware, but that ball landed in…
NICK KYRGIOS: It was out.
Q.Well, I was in the stadium, and it landed close to the lower pole, and a few more feet, could have landed on the court where the women were playing.
NICK KYRGIOS: Wait. What was this?
Q.When you hit the ball out of the stands.
NICK KYRGIOS: Oh, I thought you meant the ball that was…
Q.Yeah, bad call, no doubt. But I don’t think either player needs an MRI before the US Open. How would you feel if someone had gotten hurt?
NICK KYRGIOS: Well, obviously not great.
NICK KYRGIOS: But whose fault was it that the ball wasn’t correctly called?
Q.Oh, understand that.
NICK KYRGIOS: But would that have happened if it was correctly called and correctly umpired? No?
Q.I don’t disagree with that.
NICK KYRGIOS: But if the ball was called out, would I have hit the ball out of the stadium?
Q.Don’t know that for sure.
NICK KYRGIOS: So I would have won the point, and I still would have hit the ball out, is what you’re saying?
Q.No, that’s not what I’m saying.
NICK KYRGIOS: So if the ball was called correctly, none of the following action that I did would have happened, correct?
Q.That’s your choice.
NICK KYRGIOS: Awesome. Perfect.
It is, theoretically, possible that Halep and Tomljanovic could have been engaged in a prolonged baseline rally as the errant ball from court 10 arced over the stands, bounced into the court, and rolled under an unsuspecting foot. Many things in life are possible. But you have two parts of the conversation passing each other like ships in the night. The reporter, like many people around the tennis world, seemed to want Nick to use his head, not to act on instinct, and consider the foreseeable future consequences of his actions. Nick just wants people, himself included, to do their jobs.
“Here’s what you should do, Nick,” “Have you tried this, Nick,” “Why don’t you, Nick?” My guess is that this is what Kyrgios hears over and over again. The tennis world seems full of people who relate to Kyrgios as third-grade teachers relate to a charming and bright but willful 8-year-old:
“Use your inside words.”
“Can’t you see that you could have hurt Becky with that pencil.”
“I know you can do it if you try, you just have to try harder.”
And Kyrgios himself sometimes repeats these suggestions back to himself:
Q.Your game is amazing, your skills. What seems to be a struggle is the body, care of your body holding up for you. Are you looking at any changes to physios and the way you’re training to kind of make a change with that?
NICK KYRGIOS: Yeah. I mean, I’m getting told by people in my team that I need to start taking care of my body. I played two to three hours of basketball in Atlanta every day, so that’s not gonna help. I just [lack] discipline. It’s as simple as that. You know, I think — I mean, if knuckle down and I do the right things, I think I can do it. I have done it before. I have gone through a long time with no injury. I’m just not doing the right things at the moment. It’s actually harder. It’s hard to do.
Q.Do you know when you were doing it, why was it working? Just a state of mind? What makes it work and what makes it sometimes not work?
NICK KYRGIOS: There is an LA Fitness 30 seconds from the hotel, which doesn’t help, but I don’t know. I guess it’s just how much I want it, I guess. If I want to stay healthy, then I’ll do the right things.
The original transcript says “I like discipline,” but I can promise you that’s not what he said. “I lack discipline… if I knuckle down and I do the right things, I think I can do it… I’m just not doing the right things at the moment… I guess it’s just how much I want it, I guess. If I want to stay healthy, then I’ll do the right things.”
That could be Nick Kyrgios’s voice, or it could be someone repeating back the things he hears again and again – “why don’t you,” “why can’t you,” “Nick, can’t you see that….”
On court Friday, Kyrgios was ornery, playful, disgruntled, careless, occasionally unlucky, creative, and sore, among other adjectives. He turned some of the crowd to his side – but not @LaWanda50, a strong Del Potro fan who watched the match next to me.
Kyrgios’ serve was unreadable, and often unplayable. He mixed in bunt backhand down-the-line winners, backward tweeners, forward tweeners, and a no-look, soft drive backhand pass. It was percentage tennis if you could use imaginary numbers in the percentages.
Del Potro turns 30 next month, and he played the match like a veteran – controlling what he could, accepting what he couldn’t, occasionally (when his opponent was clearly on the verge of going on tilt) applying the smallest of nudges, such as using all his time at changeovers then slowly making his way back to the baseline.
Along the way Nick picked up a code violation for smacking a ball hard down the court, a point penalty for a racquet smash. He had entered the court with both knees taped, and by the third set he was leaving a lot of balls – but having conceded a break of serve he also began hitting tanked groundstrokes into the net and well long, and leaving serves that looked in reach. The crowd began to murmur, and to admonish, and scold. Just like all the other people around Nick Kyrgios.
In all of this he remains one of the few players to do something different and interesting with the tennis ball in over a decade. If he gets fully fit for years at a time, if he can find his own version of balance – if he can find focus – who knows what he’ll do? But there I go: another one of the countless kibitzers who knows Nick Kyrgios’s interests better than Nick Kyrgios does.