MELBOURNE, Australia — Nick Kyrgios was not willing to be hunted.
During the opening points of his Australian Open match against the wily veteran Gilles Simon — known for his ability to lure opponents into deadly traps with deceiving softballs and sudden bursts — Kyrgios did not take the bait.
Instead, on a hazy Thursday night, the mercurial Australian played the start of this second-round match in a way that belied his reputation. He was controlled, contained, comfortable, and mature.
The result, early on: perfection. It was Simon who made the errors, Simon who became the prey.
Kyrgios, 24, tall, rangy and slope-shoulderedtook the first set in a mere 27 minutes, 6-2.
At that moment, as Melbourne Arena trembled with cheers, it was hard not to jump ahead and wonder about how this tournament and this year could unfold for Nick Kyrgios.
With his nation struggling to contain wildfires that continue to char the countryside and smudge the air, could this be the Grand Slam tournament in which Kyrgios, tennis’s most combustible talent, tamps his emotions and finally makes a deep run, a semifinal or better?
You could feel that kind of excitement in the crowd, in their willingness to back their prodigal son, their eagerness to believe he could do anything over the course of this two-week stretch.
It felt as if every one of the 10,000 fans was behind him. It was a carnival. As the second set began, just as they’d done from the start, they chanted his name, serenaded him, waved the Australian flag, and sprang to their feet to cheer his 130-mile-an-hour aces.
Everyone knew how he’d crashed ignobly in the last half of 2019, behaving in tournaments with such lack of control and disdain for the sport that he ended up in counseling after being fined a total of $138,000 and put on probation for six months. Everyone knew, just as well, of the time he’d taken off from the tour grind, time enough to reflect, and of his leading role in the efforts to help victims of the terrible bushfires.
After Kyrgios said that the fires had given him a reason to play “for something more” than himself, a primary narrative during the first few days of the Australian Open was that the tough times and catastrophic blazes had given him wisdom.
Above the din, from the corner where I sat 20 rows above the sea blue court, I could hear a man two seats away speak excitedly to a friend. “It’s the new Kyrgios,” he said. “New and improved.”
Tantalizing, Yet Tempestuous
There is nobody in professional tennis quite like Kyrgios.
Nobody with his range of magnetic talent and emotion, so often unmoored.
Nobody with his churlish disregard for the old (and often stuffy) conventions of pro tennis. Who among the top players tries to drill a ball into the gut of a class act like Rafael Nadal, and then laughs it off? Kyrgios, that’s who.
He does not walk gentlemanly to the court. He struts, preens, postures — his style a constant nod to the cool, hip African-American vibe of his favorite sport, basketball, and the N.B.A.
Largely because of that vibe, there is nobody, at least among the top men’s players, who so easily taps into the youthful fans that tennis is desperate to attract as its future lifeblood.
There is nobody harder to figure out, harder to pin down.
Is he the man of the people who has recently led the movement among players to donate their winnings and raise money for victims of the local fires?
Is he the warmhearted guy who, last summer, reeled off joyous games of table tennis with ball retrievers just minutes before defeating Daniil Medvedev in the final of an ATP Tour stop in Washington?
Is he the human tornado who touched down in Cincinnati last summer, smashing rackets into graphite bits, derisively calling an Irish umpire a “potato,” and spitting the umpire’s way?
Is he the wayward soul who has played large chunks of matches by simply going through the motions, essentially quitting?
Or is Kyrgios the game competitor who, in 2014, at age 19, announced himself to the tennis world by beating Nadal on his way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals?
He has beaten not only Nadal, but also Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Few can say that. But his ranking of 26 remains mired in the broad no-man’s land that exists just outside the top 10. Despite constant talk that he was capable of stepping to the fore and upending the Big 3 hierarchy in men’s tennis, his last trip as far as a quarterfinal in a major was in 2015.
It’s hard to watch Kyrgios — with his wide smile, his style, his penchant for pulling off trick shots, his fierce serve and searing forehand, his oh-so obvious talent — and not fall for him.
And it is hard, at the same time, not to be left wanting and disappointed.
Game. Set. Match.
Kyrgios seemed utterly in control for a very long swath against the 35-year-old Simon.
But then the finish line drew near. Just a few games from the clean sweep of a three-set win, Kyrgios’s lesser self emerged. Soon, he was missing easy shots. Suddenly, he radiated tightness.
He had already chirped at the umpire when admonished for delaying play, and mockingly mimicked Nadal’s time wasting tic of tugging on his shorts and tussling with his hair. The message was clear, and brought to mind the pleadings of a child: Nadal gets away with it — why can’t I?
Now, Kyrgios looked and sounded equally petulant as he began heaping a barrage of barbs at friends and advisers near the court, as if they were to blame for his shoddy play down the stretch.
The general look among the faces in the overwhelmingly Australian crowd became one of stricken, nervous worry. They want to believe in Kyrgios the way they believe in the women’s top seed, another of their own, Ashleigh Barty. The difference is they can count on Barty. They know what to expect: unwavering effort, quiet humility. They don’t know what they’ll get with Kyrgios. They had seen him self destruct plenty of times before.
“He’s on the edge now, of something not good happening,” said one of the commentators on Australian TV. The commentator was John McEnroe, who of course is as expert as any at diagnosing the fraying emotions of a player on the verge of losing control.
Sure enough, the wheels wobbled all the way off. Simon rose up and snatched the third set. What seemed like a sure thing was now a fight.
The match marched forward, and as the games went on in the fourth set, Kyrgios’s mood only got worse. He would describe himself after the match as being close to going to entering a “dark place.”
But something interesting happened along the way. Watching closely, you could see him change. He stopped looking up at the stands, put an end to the salty barbs. His sloping posture straightened. His face grew focused, serious, intent. He began playing with just enough control to be dangerous again.
He dug deep, centered himself, and found his footing.
Soon enough he edged ahead, the front-runner once more, just in time.
The crowd roared, insisting he end it. He tossed the ball toward the pitch-dark sky, struck it with as much force and clarity as any ball he had struck all night.
Game, set, match, Kyrgios: 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.
Nothing is ever certain when he takes the court. Maybe he will flame out in the next round. Maybe he will keep going, perhaps all the way to the last weekend. Nadal potentially awaits in the fourth round. What a contrast. The ultimate professional versus the ultimate question mark. There does not appear to be much love between them. It would be one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.
The potential of that was enough on this raucous evening to savor the moment, to fall for the full range of the quixotic and talented Kyrgios as he found his way to a spirit-lifting win.