Maturing Nick Kyrgios Can Be A Real Australian Open Threat

Self-consciously or not, Nick Kyrgios has quickly succeeded in garnering a reputation as the “bad boy” of men’s tennis over his three seasons on the ATP Tour.

From verbally abusing line-judges, umpires and (infamously) fellow players, to throwing an entire game in his fourth-round defeat against Richard Gasquet at last season’s Wimbledon, the 20-year-old has arguably become better known for his surly demeanor on the court than he has for his exceptional tennis.

Some of the criticism aimed at Kyrgios has been harsh.

In an era when the lack of big John McEnroe or Ilie Nastase type personalities is constantly bemoaned in the tennis media, the fact that a young player whose emotion adds color to the ultra-sanitized world of the ATP Tour can be so ruthlessly condemned for not behaving like a corporate sponsor-powered robot seems hypocritical. Furthermore, it was difficult to disagree with Kyrgios, the son of a Greek father and Malaysian mother, when he pointed out that some of the criticism he has received in the Australian media has been informed by racial prejudice.

Nevertheless, the manner in which the Canberra native’s form deteriorated in the second half of last season as the controversy generated by his Wimbledon exit and sledging of Stan Wawrinka reached its height (he lost seven of his final 15 ATP Tour matches) meant that legitimate questions were raised over the extent to which Kyrgios could ever hope to fulfill his potential as a tennis player without improving his discipline.

Last July, for instance, The Australian ran a story pondering whether Kyrgios’ on court braggadocio made him a “Breath of fresh air or a total d***head?” and the Guardian’s Kevin Mitchell later argued that the youngster needed external intervention if he was to have any chance of salvaging a career loaded with promise.

“If Kyrgios cares about his career – and sometimes he is so blase about his success, wealth and celebrity he professes to hate tennis – the hip young dude from Canberra who smirks when he should be smiling, who plainly is struggling with fame, needs to understand he is not the only clown in town”, Mitchell wrote. “He is part of a traveling circus, certainly, but the laughter stopped a little while ago.”

It is in this context that Kyrgios’ Hopman Cup victory playing alongside Daria Gavrilova last weekend augurs so positively for his chances in 2016.

For although the mixed-team event is far from the toughest or highest-profile test Kyrgios could face in the build-up to next week’s Australian Open, the professionalism with which he went about dispatching Alexander Zverev, Andy Murray, Kenny de Schepper and Alexandr Dolgopolov in order to claim the title spoke volumes about the focus and hunger with which he is beginning the new campaign.

Six months ago, the idea that the Aussie would approach an event such as the Hopman Cup with the seriousness he displayed last week would have seemed unfathomable and it is testament to Kyrgios’ ambition to succeed in 2016 that he returned the confetti-littered court after beating Dolgopolov in Saturday’s final in order to work on his serve before catching the red-eye flight to Sydney.

“It’s my job. It’s my life. My game can always get better,” he said. “There are always things that I need to improve on. You can never be too ready, I feel, for a grand slam.”

Ever since winning the Australian Boy’s Singles event in 2013, Kyrgios has been earmarked as a future star and his fourth-round defeat of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago confirmed beyond any doubt that the Canberra native possesses the mentality required to translate his junior-level success to the ATP Tour, and he has since gone on to beat Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Murray.

Kyrgios presently ranks as the youngest player in the ATP Tour’s top-30; he reached his second grand slam quarter-final at his home Open a year ago and qualified for his maiden ATP singles final in Estoril last May. Simply put, the Aussie has all of the technical and physical qualities required to enshrine himself as a top-10 regular for a decade to come and his age profile means that he is better placed than almost anyone on Tour to capitalize on the inevitable demise of an aging “big-four” in order to breakthrough at major championship level.

All that has been lacking in Kyrgios’ game over the last three years is focus, and last week’s performance suggests that the 20-year-old is maturing fast ahead of the season’s opening grand slam.

The big four would do well to take note of Kyrgios’ progress.

[Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images]