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Nick Kyrgios meets his game-changing moment

Nick Kyrgios might lose to Karen Khachanov in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. He might be pancake-flat and serve up a disappointing performance. Yet, even if that does happen, Kyrgios has succeeded in changing the larger conversation surrounding his enigmatic and strange career.

Kyrgios doing well at Wimbledon wasn’t surprising in the least. Grass tennis has remained a refuge for huge servers, even in this era of slowed-down and more robust grass surfaces which facilitate a baseline game, unlike the chewed-up 1980s courts which demanded more of a net-rushing game plan. Attritional tennis exists on grass, but not to the same extent found on hardcourts or clay, which are generally far more punishing.

Kyrgios demonstrated early in his career that he could get hot at Wimbledon and, with his natural feel for a full array of shots, slice his way to success on grass. It is still the surface which rewards variety the most. It was — and is — on hardcourts where Kyrgios had to prove he could withstand formidable challenges at majors. This is partly because Kyrgios’s fitness has been an impediment to his career, but also because plenty of pros know how to make hardcourt matches supremely physical tests.

Daniil Medvedev isn’t Djokovic or Nadal, but he stood above everyone else in that regard. The 2021 U.S. Open champion and 2022 Australian Open runner-up had made the final at each of the last three hardcourt majors. Going through him on hardcourts at a major is an achievement which, if forged, should change perceptions in the world of tennis.

You can say, with accuracy and legitimacy, that Medvedev seems to be a shadow of the man who came within an eyelash of winning back-to-back majors this past January in Australia. We don’t have to fight against that point. We can acknowledge it.

Yet, regardless of whether Club Med was diminished, this much was certain: Kyrgios had to go through him. A true title contender would not have squandered this opportunity. A true championship competitor would have remained focused on the task at hand and grasped the importance of this moment.

Kyrgios has spent nearly all of his career getting distracted or sidetracked or derailed in some form or fashion — sometimes by fitness, sometimes by raw emotions, sometimes by petty grievances, sometimes by a joker’s carelessness and lack of discipline.

What we have seen from Kyrgios this summer, especially at this U.S. Open and particularly in the win over Medvedev, is a substantial increase in seriousness. No, Nick still has a sense of fun, and he is still at times a goofball, shown in his dumb hitting of a ball on Medvedev’s side of the net before it landed out. It’s not as though Kyrgios has become Ivan Lendl on court. But, the point is visible enough: Kyrgios has toned down and shaved away a measure of his self-destructive tendencies. There is more of a hunger to win, more of a desire to do what it takes to succeed.

As a result, he is fitter. He gets derailed less. He stays a little more on task. He isn’t free of flaws, but the severity of the flaws has been greatly reduced. If the body is fitter and the mind is 50 percent stronger, Kyrgios’s natural talent — which has never been questioned by anyone — becomes magnified in its heft and value.

He becomes a much better player now that he has made this increased investment in paying the price required of success at the highest level.

I didn’t expect this. I was wrong about Nick. I have no problem conceding the point.

At a U.S. Open where a Caroline Garcia-Ajla Tomljanovic women’s semifinal is a possibility, the unexpected is happening all around us.

Heightened, changed status in tennis — most of all, increased respect from fans and commentators — was not going to be freely given to Nick Kyrgios. He needed to earn it.

Now he has it … and what matters is that he seems to understand that point.

If he retains that understanding, this changed and improved player should post some changed and improved results.

Even if that doesn’t happen this week in New York, Kyrgios might have finally seen the light the tennis world hoped he would see.

Saul on the road to Damascus, in tennis clothing.

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