It would be wrong to say that Nick Kyrgios was up to his “old” tricks on Tuesday at the Rogers Cup. At this point, they’re his only tricks.
Kyrgios seemingly had a match against Stan Wawrinka won. He steamrolled the first set against the former Grand Slam champion, taking advantage of Wawrinka’s long injury absence from tour.
He had the second in hand. Then the most confounding talent in sport decided to do what he so often does – visibly lose all interest in doing his job.
Late in the second set, as the tide began coming back in, Kyrgios called an injury timeout to assess a troublesome hip. Afterward, his body language changed entirely.
The racquet hung limply at his side. He spent changeover timeouts wandering aimlessly around the court. Wawrinka had to yell over to catch Kyrgios’s attention before serving.
He lost the second set after appearing to give up during the final game. That was probably as good a time as any to retire, but Kyrgios continued on at something much less than half-speed. It was hard to spot a physical impediment during play, but between points he spent a lot of time bent over.
Kyrgios pulled the same surrender act in the final game of the third. A couple of unforced errors, and no attempt to volley the last shot of the match.
Wawrinka and Kyrgios have some bad history at this tournament. In 2015, Kyrgios said some unchivalrous things about Wawarinka’s girlfriend, women’s player Donna Vekic, which were caught by courtside mics. There was a shoving match afterward in the backstage area.
This time, it was more cordial at the end – handshakes and chest patting. As Kyrgios shuffled off the court, he was already checking his phone.
It’s old news that wildly talented tennis player Nick Kyrgios occasionally, and increasingly, doesn’t care about playing tennis.
During a match in June, he began doing impressions of other people’s serves. While he was playing. He got a Roger Federer in there, and a Gaël Monfils.
Last year, he told a reporter he had “tanked” several tournaments. He agreed that he was “an accidental tennis player.”
“I hate the travelling,” Kyrgios said. As an Australian, he really hasn’t done himself any favours in his choice of work.
But it is one thing to read about it, and another to watch Kyrgios doing it up close. We are trained not just to believe that pro athletes care about their craft, but that they must do so. That’s how we’ve made peace with the fact that people get so monstrously rich hitting a ball for a living.
In the 21st century, professional athletics has become something like holy orders. You don’t join. You are summoned. To behave contrary to that secular calling suggests a deep flaw in character.
Kyrgios isn’t always like this, but he was at his worst/best on Tuesday. It was disconcerting to watch, and just a bit thrilling.
Seeing Kyrgios refuse to play tennis during a tennis match must be something like what mid-70s rock ’n’ roll aficionados felt when they first got a look at the Sex Pistols. This is your expectation of entertainment turned inside-out and spat back at you.
As such, it’s probably no longer right to call Kyrgios a tennis player (though, when he chooses to be, he is remarkable at it). He’s a provocateur. His goal is upsetting people, especially the ones who’ve either paid to see him or report on his meltdowns.
How else to explain Kyrgios showing up after his early afternoon disaster to do the world’s least-engaged news conference? He was playing doubles in the afternoon. He could’ve easily begged off.
Instead, he rushed in immediately after the match (meaning that, unlike every other pro everywhere, he didn’t seem bothered about getting treatment for his injury). He skulked into the room, slumped in a chair, folded his arms across his chest and began huffing loudly. As questions were being asked, he rolled his eyes. He looked like a teenager daring someone to send him to the principal’s office.
Ahead of Wimbledon, Kyrgios wrote a first-person piece in which he said he’d “woken up a little bit” and now felt “pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”
“Do you still feel that way or has that changed at all?” someone asked.
“No,” Kyrgios said and then stared at the ceiling.
By his tone, it wasn’t clear which part of the question he was answering.
After three or four minutes of brusqueness – “I don’t know”; “I have no positives”; “Doesn’t really make a difference to me” – he popped out of his chair and bolted. In artistic terms, the day’s whole performance really hung together nicely.
Later, given a chance to comment on Kyrgios’s indifference, Wawrinka took a very hard pass, pivoting back to his own performance.
For the moment, Kyrgios is still the 17th-best player in the world, but after his showing in Canada remains the undisputed world champion of not giving a damn.
His ATP ranking sandwiches him between Kyle Edmund and Lucas Pouille – two good tennis players who try hard all the time, and a pair that no one but obsessives think about very much.
Though he hasn’t won anything, a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about Kyrgios. Perfectly rational people who only sort of follow tennis lose their minds talking about him.
“BUT HE’S WASTING ALL THAT TALENT,” is the common theme.
I don’t believe that any more. I think he’s cultivating a different sort of talent – one for obstinance. Kyrgios defies common wisdom, good sense and his own best interests. His job is defiance of all competitive norms for no other reason than he can. He’s the last punk-rock athlete.
It would be easier for Kyrgios to give in and be what people want him to be. Even now, he’d be loved for that.
Instead, he repeatedly chooses the far harder path. You may not admire it, but you have to respect the commitment.