Nick Kyrgios had started well in his third round match at the US Open. Better than that, it was an electrifying, supreme start. Tommy Robredo, the veteran, was being crushed, down 5-0 in the first set. Kyrgios was flying, sending down bombs, one particular service game lasted all of 45 seconds. The Spaniard across from him had no answer to the young Australian’s power and precision. It was the image of a player firmly embedded in what they call ‘the Zone’. He could see every shot before he hit it, and when he hit it, it was perfect. The back-and-forth across the baseline would’ve felt more like gliding across pockets of warmed, scented air. It was a wave of momentum, and a start to the match, that Kyrgios should have ridden into the fourth round.
But Tommy Robredo, a name that I, at age 24, can’t remember tennis not being associated with, such is his longevity in the game, was simply waiting. Tennis is a sport where, even when standing on the very precipice, staring into the void of defeat, victory is still technically possible. When, after losing that first set, Robredo’s service was broken in the second, but he didn’t panic. Of course he didn’t, the Spaniard is one of the most experienced players on the tour, and to panic in the face of such youthful buoyancy would have been a rookie mistake. A rookie Robredo is not; he knew that he would win some points eventually, battle back in a game or two, and slowly but surely turn the tide. Grand Slam matches are veritable marathons, five long sets that can test a player’s patience as much as their ability. Even with the first set convincingly won, Robredo knew that Kyrgios had a long way to go. How right he was.
The way that Nick Kyrgios imploded, the way he let his emotions strip him of a chance at victory, reminded me of a vague recollection I have of another Australian tennis star. I have, in the murky recesses of my sporting mind, a trace of a memory of Lleyton Hewitt in a match against Pat Rafter. This was a young Hewitt (not that most Australians can think of Hewitt as anything other than young in some way or another) before his maiden Slam victory. This was a boy who raged against himself, who shrieked in frustration at the missed points, the unforced errors. His spotty face was contorted with anger, his ponytail trembling out the back of his cap. Hewitt had yet to work out how to harness this tempestuous energy; it crippled him in this match against Rafter, who was an utter contrast, a refined and patient presence across the net, serve-volley, retreat, serve-volley, repeat. Hewitt would soon learn how to make use of his anger, how to mould it into the will that would sustain him through many a five-setter. Eventually in Hewitt’s career, he would often be at his best when the odds were against him, when the red mist descended. He has has played in more five set matches than any other Open-era player. Imagine being a player across from that, from a man boiling with fury, apparently on the verge of self-destruction, but then who begins to send that fury flying back at you with every shot he makes. The battler that Hewitt became was thanks to this failing that he masterfully made into a strength.
Kyrgios is not a similar player to Hewitt. He is a rangy, powerful fellow, with a big serve and an athletic game. The scurrying persistence, the drop shots and lobs that defined Hewitt’s game will not define Kyrgios’s. Kyrgios is a rarefied hitter, who looks assured when directing rallies, and very uncomfortable when battling to stay in them. The sight of him throwing his racquet down in frustration, of muttering harshly to himself after a lost point became a common one in the match against Robredo, and it was only the third set. The game was still numerically level when they entered the tie-break in that third set, one which Robredo only narrowly won. On paper, Kyrgios still had as much a chance to win as to lose. But because all of his initial momentum had gone, absorbed by that sponge Robredo, Kyrgios was now as far away from ‘the Zone’ as he could be. It was just a faint memory now, fading fast for no good reason, just like my own mental echo of a youthful and volatile Hewitt. So faint in fact, that maybe Hewitt’s match against Rafter never happened, I certainly looked for a report of it, to no avail. Thinking about it now, maybe it wasn’t Hewitt who faced Rafter at all, though my point is no less valid to think it was. It might even have been a young Roger Federer against Rafter that day. Federer had been a bad-tempered junior player, racquet-smashing and bellowing to the heavens. His transition into the sport’s highest gentleman, of overcoming his own mental frailties, is one that Kyrgios can also look to as a most inspiring example.
It got worse and worse for Nick. His physical exertions from earlier in the match were now catching up with him, and Robredo was turning the screw. The final conclusion came as no surprise, as Robredo raced away with the match, winning the fourth set easily. How much pleasure he must have taken from showing this young upstart how the world really is. Krygios will learn from this, one hopes. Like Hewitt and Federer, he has to either reshape or quash his mental flaws. Then, next time, as the umpire announces “game, set, and match”, it will be he, not some wily veteran, who will be holding their arms aloft.