Cool Hand Nick

People like to call Nick Kyrgios a bad boy, but he may just be a kid struggling with time.
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While serving as Australia’s Davis Cup captain, Lleyton Hewitt recently elected to leave Nick Kyrgios off the national squad for its match against Great Britain. This decision also essentially cost Kyrgios a chance to redeem his wretched US Open performance from earlier in the month. Of course, considering Hewitt witnessed Kyrgios’ erratic play against Andy Murray in the first round of the year’s final Grand Slam, the move was not altogether surprising . What was surprising was how calmly Kyrgios accepted the decision, even admitting it may be best for him. After all, the entire tennis world believes he and his career are at some sort of impasse. To behave or not to behave, that is the question. And the answer appears to be approaching with unconventional speed.  

Late in his Open match, Kyrgios attempted a half volley between his legs. The play made little sense in any context, and seemed especially boneheaded considering he was on the verge of being swept in three sets. At the time, Kyrgios was essentially coachless and Lleyton Hewitt was standing in as his would be Obi Wan, yet the talented protégé appeared to be trending towards becoming a lost cause. While Kyrgios had played in this same reckless manner throughout the night, John McEnroe, the analyst and a man who knows a thing or two about ruffling feathers, found this moment particularly egregious, proclaiming, “If I were Hewitt, I’d walk out of the stadium right now.”

In the end, though, no one stormed out as a way of teaching lessons—those would come later.  For the time being, Kyrgios’ lack of strategy became the reason to keep watching, as always.

The narrative tagline attached to the young Australian is that he is the sport’s new bad boy. He infamously broke protocol when he shamed Stan Wawrinka as a cuckold. His bevy of raucous fans regularly storm the sport’s quieter moments. And, in the transgression that may offer the greatest insight into the mind of Kyrgios, he suggested at Wimbledon that he may even prefer basketball to tennis.

While his behavior consistently breaks with public decorum, Kyrgios’ opposition to the very sport at which he is so talented departs most of all from the previous standards set in bad boy form. Agassi fought fashion and inner demons. McEnroe was at war with judgment, and, in some ways, the latter’s rants against authority were akin to Donald Trump at any moment where he insists he is the sole arbiter of truth. McEnroe, however, always maintained some legitimacy as a tennis player because everyone watching his violent encounters knew that his miserableness erupted from a will to win. And, in the end, even Agassi sided with the game’s conventional wisdom. So far, however, neither of these paths is walked by Kyrgios. So far, no one seems especially eager to give him the benefit of the doubt, either.

***

Part of the issue isn’t just what Kyrgios says about playing tennis or what he says to other players, but how he actually plays the game. There are times when an outside observer, with no prior knowledge of the individual, might catch Kyrgios in midst of a match and wonder not whether he enjoys tennis but whether he enjoys any sort of competition. Ironically, these moments are also Kyrgios at his best. He’s not winning, but he is entertaining by virtue of disobeying others’ expectations as well as his own talent.

In the U.S. Open match against Murray, for instance, he lost his racquet on a violent forehand while trailing in Game 3 of the second set.  The absurdity of an incredible athlete lacking control in such an obvious manner brought uncontrolled reactions, not just from analysts and fans but from his opponent, as well: Murray laughed. Murray never laughs during a match; he’s usually too caught up in berating himself to even fathom that humor can be found in frustration. But the sight of Kyrgios leaning back on his heels, cranking his arm, and flailing on one leg was enough to break Murray’s intensity towards himself.

It fit one of the most apt criticisms of Kyrgios’ tennis game at the moment:  that he too often finds himself in a hurry. It’s not that he’s oblivious to it; he did, after all, tattoo the words Time is running out on his arm. And these four words are why, hilarious as Kyrgios can sometimes be on the court, his movements also appear on the verge of tragedy. He truly does play the game like a pair of Greek masks, toeing a tightrope between comedy and disaster.

And yet, the puzzling nature with Kyrgios’ career is how quickly everyone began to assume that time has passed him by. In 2014, he appeared on the horizon like a magnificent bolt of lightning. He struck down Rafael Nadal, one of the first flashpoints of the Spaniard’s late career swoon. His serve appeared to be of a nature beyond experience -- something mythical, even. But now, only a year later, the question is about whether or not that all-so-certain future still exists. In some ways, this conversation is all rather foolish: Kyrgios is, after all, only 20 years old. Then again, he appears to be a very tired 20-year-old. In between the set changes of his match with Murray, Kyrgios could be seen with his head back on the chair and his legs spread before him, sleeping.

***

Andre Agassi was 22 when he won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. If Kyrgios is similar to one of tennis’ former bad boys, it is more likely Agassi than McEnroe. Of course, these similarities have less to do with how the two play the game than with how they view it. Since the release of his autobiography, much has been made of Agassi’s inner war with himself. He felt assaulted by his own image; his own falseness. And yet the game of tennis still managed to be the allotted space in which he found redemption and came to terms with the world as it were. If not that, then it was at least a place where he could bargain his fate with himself and the masses. He could essentially shape his identity with the swing of a racquet.

On the other hand, Kyrgios, at least to this day, seems lost in frivolous actions on the court that while athletic lack any notion of purposeful intent. He may act, but the actions lack any form of self-defining will. The equivalent of such is Paul Newman in the opening sequence of Cool Hand Luke, cutting the heads off parking meters. There is no rhyme or reason. There is simply something to do. And the tennis court becomes not a place for discovering or losing one’s identity as it was for Agassi, but merely a place for stalling the inevitability of one’s time on earth.  

In his review of Cool Hand Luke, Roger Ebert describes Newman’s character in the film as something different than the anti-heroes who preceded him. In Newman’s Luke, Ebert argues an archetypal shift has resulted from indifference, claiming Luke not only “didn’t care what people thought” but that the “hero stopped wanting to be a hero.”

Time and again in the first round of the U.S. Open, Kyrgios stood flat-footed, not ready for the ball. Yet somehow he still managed to make Murray sprint the line to the far corners of the court. In these moments, the young player could have and should have come to the net, but he refused to do so. He was essentially giving points away, and the match became less the setting for heroism than  the forum for inevitable disdain.

Back in the first set, with the match knotted at five games apiece, Murray held serve, and Kyrgios managed a return. Then Murray struck a beautiful forehand up the line, and a sprinting Kyrgios yelled, “What am I doing?” No one else in the arena or at home quite knew. But they kept watching anyway,as the next great player in the game  was napping at warp speed.


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