Will we ever really know what lies inside the mind of Nick Kyrgios as a tennis professional? Will we ever know, deep down, what makes Kyrgios tick? Will we ever understand what puts Kyrgios at peace and what unsettles him? Will we clearly identify when, and why, and how, Kyrgios makes various determinations about how satisfied he is (or isn’t) with the progress of his career? We certainly don’t know the answers to these questions now. What does the future hold? It is impossible to say.
Here, though, is a word of advice for Kyrgios — whether he pays attention to it is up to him: Look at the person who defeated you on Saturday at the U.S. Open. Look at the example of a person who has risen to the mountaintop for a very specific set of reasons.
Why has Roger Federer won 20 majors, or collected 98 titles, or won over 1,160 matches en route to setting all sorts of modern-era tennis records? One could rattle off many items on a list, but at the top of that list reside a few central pillars of the Federer empire:
— Mental clarity, having a mind free of clutter and distractions
— Practicing very hard, often in hot weather, to build fitness and endurance
— In his older age, scheduling to build rest into his season in order to sustain longevity
— When he wasn’t fully healthy in 2016, shutting down the season so that he could come back refreshed and whole in 2017
Federer has made tradeoffs and sacrifices. He has put in a lot of work so that when he plays live matches, he is generally prepared. He rests (in this later portion of his career) so that when he plays a tournament, he can be fully invested in it instead of going through the motions. Various decisions and actions are part of a larger, integrated process. Doing something over here with the schedule is conducive to promoting more lucidity over there in the mental game when on the court and trying to take care of business. Addressing all facets of an athlete’s life and its collection of professional responsibilities enables that athlete to be more at peace with himself, due to an awareness that everything is being tended to and nothing is being neglected. Being prepared isn’t just a way of life for the best athletes; it sends and reinforces a message to that athlete that he doesn’t have to worry about the externals. He can just play the next point and hit the next ball. The mind doesn’t have to wander during a match and question something unrelated to the task at hand.
Isn’t this EXACTLY what Kyrgios needs? Isn’t it something Kyrgios’s camp might want to impress upon Nick after Federer rolled through the Australian in straight sets on Saturday? Kyrgios is 23, which is not the level of a young pup such as 19-year-old countryman Alex de Minaur, but also not the relatively advanced age of Grigor Dimitrov (27), Milos Raonic (27), or Kei Nishikori (28), who are running out of chances to make big runs at important tournaments and can’t know how many tomorrows they have left. Kyrgios should have many more tomorrows ahead — far more than his number of yesterdays — but he is not the newcomer playing with house money anymore. That was de Minaur in his five-set loss to Marin Cilic early Sunday morning. De Minaur can play another year or 18 months with freedom from oppressive expectations. He will be expected to begin to rise to a higher level of performance at 21 or 22, but for now, he can focus on improvement and development without worrying too much about his results-based thresholds at the majors.
Kyrgios is different. He SHOULD be worrying about his performance levels at majors… but with time not yet his enemy (not in the way it is for Grigor, Milos or Kei), he needs to reconsider how he uses time.
You know, like Federer.
What if Kyrgios, after Laver Cup, took the rest of the season off to recharge his batteries, realign his regimen, and come back in Australia in January, without the rigors of lengthy travel? What if Nick hired a top-tier coach? What if he removed doubles matches from his itinerary at tour events, and what if he spent more time cultivating physical fitness? What if Nick adopted the mindset of a player who relished prolonged matches (in the event he had to play them) instead of telegraphing his discomfort in the midst of them?
It is worth noting that Federer’s devotion to fitness — doing work behind the scenes so that he would be supremely prepared when he took the court for a live match, especially at the majors — was developed by an Australian. Tony Roche asked Federer if he was ready to play and win seven five-set matches at a major tournament. Federer realized he needed to be ready to do that if possible. No stone is left unturned in the pursuit of championships. That is a winner’s mindset. That’s what Nick must learn to adopt and then internalize.
Federer is in great shape for a 37-year-old tennis player, great enough to chase down that shot and fire around the net post during Saturday’s match. Kyrgios can see what fitness — and strong work habits — do for Federer.
If only he could look in the mirror and see what Federer’s habits could achieve for him.
Nick Kyrgios is a one-of-a-kind individual, but he has to learn from others if he wants to get where he wants to go. Federer is a great place to start.