Star of Tomorrow: Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios, the fast-rising Greek-Malaysian-Australian with a flair for the dramatic, has just toppled Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon fourth round and is driven to continue his assault on the Emirates ATP Rankings with the Top 100 in his sights. This article first appeared in April.
Nick Kyrgios almost never played professional tennis; he almost never became the 2013 Australian Open boys’ champion and ascended to the No. 1 junior ranking. Kyrgios came close to never joining Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as one of just 15 players to claim their maiden ATP Challenger Tour crown by age 18, when he won in Sydney last year.
We were nearly never exposed to the charismatic personality and passionate persona that captured our attention at the year’s first Grand Slam.
That’s because Nick Kyrgios, basketball superstar, almost became a reality.
Committing to pursue a professional career in any sport is not a simple task for a teenager. A force on both the basketball court and the tennis court, the 6’4” Canberra, Australia native was a promising dual-sport athlete, but at the age of 14 he was forced to make the most difficult decision of his life.
“It was probably the toughest decision I had to make, but my family was pretty keen on me taking up tennis,” Kyrgios told ATPWorldTour.com during the Savannah Challenger. “I love to play sports a lot so it was an easy transition to fully concentrate on tennis. It’s a choice I’m not regretting.”
On Sunday, Kyrgios defeated American young gun Jack Sock 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in the Savannah final to surge 19 places to No. 152 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. The Australian is a perfect 3-0 in Challenger Tour finals and has a 21-3 career match record at the Challenger level.
The right-hander casually saunters across the concourse and onto Stadium Court, with neon pink headphones affixed to his ears, sandwiching a Mohawk hair style that pays homage to his inner hoops identity.
But don’t let the rock star exterior fool you. Where there’s swagger, there’s also a driven, focused individual with the work ethic of a champion.
Wielding a world-class forehand, cannon serve and exceptional instincts, Kyrgios likens his game to 10-time ATP World Tour titlist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It is perhaps his most potent attribute, however—his humility and mental strength in the face of pressure—that is to be admired above the rest.
“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t feeling the pressure. I hear it a lot. It’s on my mind when I’m playing or when I’m training but it’s something you have to deal with and block out. You have to remember why you started playing the sport: because you love it.”
Drawing on Greek roots from his father and Malaysian culture from his mother, the Australian’s heritage runs deep and is a source of pride. A popular follow on Twitter and Instagram, Kyrgios often delivers inspirational quotes and messages on the social media networks. For him, staying inspired is an essential part of life and he often looks to his brother, Christos, for that spark.
“I feel it’s very important to stay inspired and chase your dreams. That is, what you want to be remembered by when your time’s up. It all starts with hard work.
“I draw inspiration from my brother. He’s always been there for me. He’s one of the most helpful and caring people I’ve ever met. He always keeps me inspired and motivated. He drives me to keep going and strive to be the best I can be.”
While Kyrgios also credits countryman and former World No. 4 Pat Cash and Davis Cup captain Patrick Rafter for his development and maturation, as well as “one of the greatest competitors of all time” in Lleyton Hewitt, it’s Roger Federer that he looks up to as the perfect role model.
“I’d say Federer is very much my idol. He’s the perfect athlete and has the perfect mental attitude. He’s so humble on and off the court.”
The Simon Rea pupil has soared up the Emirates ATP Rankings in the past year, becoming the youngest player in the Top 200.
He hoisted his second ATP Challenger Tour trophy in Sarasota, in just his first clay-court tournament on the circuit. It was his first tournament in more than two months after suffering a right shoulder injury, which included inflammation and fluid in the joint, to start his 2014 campaign.
Outside of a first round victory at Roland Garros last year and a Davis Cup dead rubber against Poland, the Aussie’s clay-court resume was rather bare entering Sarasota, but that didn’t stop him from running the table in his return, a testament to his resiliency, determination and a self-proclaimed all-court style of play.
“I feel I have an all-around game style. I’m a good server and look to be aggressive on returns. Those are the two most important things on any surface. I think my game shifts well to clay. I like to hit heavy forehands and dictate from the back and on clay that’s pretty important.”
Despite all his signature victories to date, perhaps Kyrgios’s most meaningful match came in a loss, in the second round of the Australian Open earlier this year. After securing a hard-fought four-set win over Benjamin Becker in his opener, a fired up Kyrgios surged to a two-set lead on No. 27 seed Benoit Paire in front of a raucous crowd on Margaret Court Arena. He had the deciding break in hand in the third set, but his body would let him down. Fatigue gave way to cramps and the lead began to evaporate.
But Kyrgios’s fighting spirit and warrior mentality did not diminish.
“I started to feel it physically. It’s nothing really abnormal for an 18 year old playing in the Australian Open best-of-five sets to feel it physically. His experience and fitness got him over the line.”
Kyrgios says it is his fitness that has become a priority and the taste of competing against the world’s best on one of the biggest stages only makes him hungrier.
“It’s something to work on every day. Getting fitter, stronger, having a few more experiences. With the more meetings I have under my legs, I would win that match next time. I’m going to go give it my best effort.”
Kyrgios is not afraid of the spotlight and embraces the pressure of being the highly-touted face of Australian tennis in the years to come, alongside good friend and fellow rising talent Thanasi Kokkinakis (pictured with Kyrgios). The duo won the Wimbledon junior doubles crown last year. He acknowledges it’s a journey and that there’s still plenty of work to do.
“I feel me and Thanasi have the ability to do something special in the sport but it’s a bit early to say that. We need to stay grounded, stay humble and keep working hard.”
The tandem have caught the attention of countryman and Hall of Famer Mark Woodforde. “Nick is an incredible talent and so is Thanasi who is coming right behind him. Two guys with Greek heritage who I think are going to be our flag bearers in hopefully two or three years time.”
As for basketball, the avid Boston Celtics fan maintains that he still shoots hoops and takes in the NBA action whenever he can, whether it be at a Memphis Grizzlies game during the US National Indoor Tennis Championships or battling Gael Monfils in a competitive game of one-on-one during Australia’s Davis Cup tie with France.
“You can see that on YouTube,” Kyrgios is quick to point out, referring to his victory over Monfils. “The game-winning shot I hit, the step-back in his face.
“I always try to play basketball when I can. It was the first sport that I loved.”
While he is reluctant to set a specific Emirates ATP Rankings goal, Kyrgios has his sights set on the Top 100. He says he just wants to remain healthy and play to the best of his ability.
Kyrgios’s love for basketball may be firmly entrenched in his identity, but it is his passion for tennis that courses through his veins.