Athletes are meant to thrive by being in control. That’s why cricketers go sledding. The late Shane Warne once said the purpose of a sled was to unsettle a batter, so he lost his focus.
Nick Kyrgios is not known for his self-control, focus or focus. He chooses fights with referees, linesmen, opponents, fans and even his own entourage. On the surface, this goes against the convention of keeping a clear mind. But maybe there is a method to the madness.
“Nick can play with chaos,” Australian great Lleyton Hewitt told Eurosport after Kyrgios’ controversial win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. “Not many people can, but he can.”
Novak Djokovic is known as the Joker, but he’s the bad boy from Canberra who is polarizing opinion at home and abroad with his controversial, brash, anti-establishment schtick who best personifies the supervillain of Batman (“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos”, declares the Joker in The black Knight).
Hugh van Cuylenburg, founder of the Resilience Project – which teaches mental health strategies to build resilience and happiness – says Kyrgios is comfortable amid such maelstroms. “I think Kyrgios will feel more in control when he’s in a hostile environment, it’s working for him.”
Van Cuylenburg has worked with some of the biggest names in Australian sport including Steve Smith, Dustin Martin and Billy Slater.
“The controversy works for him. I think he feels more in control if everyone is out of control, if that makes sense,” van Cuylenburg said. “I think he feels more in control when people around him are upset.
“Some people thrive in a hostile environment because it gets them to the right level of excitement and reminds them how much they care and how much they want to win – and Kyrgios is one of them.”
Sports psychologist Jeff Bond saw this behavior firsthand when he worked with 1987 Australian Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who he said would create controversy to ignite. Cash was this week among those criticizing Kyrgios’ behavior at the All England Club.
“Patrick went through a phase where he felt he needed to be excited, and he would find something: the grip, the strings of his racquet, the sole of his shoes not having the right profile, the safety too slow to let him in,” Bond said.
“You could see the building and the sharp building, it was just as likely to go through a red light. I wouldn’t let him drive a car on game day. You could see the building and the sharp building.
Former Australian star Wally Masur has experience playing against hotheads like Kyrgios, having competed in the days of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. A player losing his marbles wasn’t the advantage he seemed, as he learned against Connors.
“I made a mistake a year in dismissing Jimmy Connors by complaining to the umpire about the time he was taking between points,” said Stan Sport tennis expert Masur.
“Jimmy gave me an absolute bite then won five games in a row. I shook a cage and he taught me a lesson. The next time I played him I didn’t say boo. It was a different scenario, it doesn’t always mean they’re excited and agitated, they’ll walk away – it may motivate some players.
Bond sees Kyrgios as a “disruptor” who wants to take tennis away from its genteel traditions. His doubles success with Thanasi Kokkinakis at the Australian Open attracted a younger and more vocal group of fans, and raised the ire of opponents unhappy with his behavior on the court.
“He wants to change the culture of tennis,” Bond said. “He wants to move it away from the traditional, stuffy culture, which he finds boring, to something closer to the entertainment model.
“They [Kyrgios and Kokkinakis] made very exciting. They attracted a different kind of audience who got excited and into it too. There is this bubbling below.
Australians like their sports stars to be humble. Athletes are encouraged by their coaches and goalies to make small targets by playing straight. Kyrgios disagrees with this plan. Passionate about basketball and the NBA, Kyrgios shows impetuosity.
When the cameras wanted a slice of Kyrgios after assault allegations against him broke on Tuesday (he is due to appear in the ACT Magistrates Court on August 2 for a simple assault allegation against his former girlfriend Chiara Passari), he was heard telling his trainer: “I feel like I’m in the last dance», a reference to the Netflix series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“He imitates what he sees – the clothes he wears, he says whatever he wants in press conferences, that’s what basketball players do,” van Cuyenburg said.
“You look at AFL footballers and Australian cricketers, it’s these textbook answers, you can almost answer the question for them knowing what they’re going to say. They’re all saying the same thing in a roundabout way – not NBA basketball players.
“I know Nick is obsessed with NBA basketball. He likes to imitate what he sees NBA basketball players doing because it’s fun.
Can Kyrgios change? Does he need it? McEnroe, the pin-up of tennis’ bad boys, says Kyrgios’ mindset is what’s holding him back from realizing his true potential and becoming a regular top-five player.
Bond isn’t convinced Kyrgios’ results would improve by eliminating sideshow, tweeners, underarm serves. He remembers a comment a member of the Cash family made to him when they joined forces.
“They looked me in the eye, ‘You’re not going to put out his fire, are you?'” Bond said. “I was aware that you didn’t want to lose the edge. We worked a lot on Patrick to recognize his ideal play areas. This is to help a player determine where it is and how it stays there.
“If you were to remove the showman from Kyrgios, he wouldn’t be the same.”
Like many in Kyrgios’ world, his relationship with tennis is complex. He said he didn’t like the sport and only played after being pushed by his parents as a teenager. His sporting passion is basketball. Before the grass swing, he didn’t play a tournament for two months. He has spoken of his struggles with the jet-set lifestyle and the strains it has placed on his family relationships and his mental health.
Yet the way he celebrated his victories contradicts this narrative. Moments after his quarter-final victory, a pensive-looking Kyrgios sat quietly in his chair at the edge of the pitch, seemingly pondering the importance of reaching his first Grand Slam semi-final. Those who see him in Sydney note that he rarely has a racquet in his hand during his free time at home.
“There were times when he certainly didn’t enjoy the pro circuit, but looking at his reaction today, I think that means more to him than he sometimes lets on,” Masur said, who worked with him in the Davis Cup.
Then there’s McEnroe’s theory that Kyrgios is afraid of failure, so when he loses he has ready-made excuses in his temper tantrums, his schedule, and a variable commitment to training.
“Your questions are interesting, I don’t have the answer,” Masur said. “He’s a complex character. It’s hard to fully unravel his mindset. He has the ability to surprise. What’s beyond doubt is the ability he has.
Bond describes Kyrgios’ bravado as a “big front”. For all the Kyrgios talk about not caring what people think of him, Van Cuylenburg sees the person behind the character: the Kyrgios who pushed a woman’s broken down car home in Canberra , whose generosity sparked a social media-led pledge for bushfire relief.
“Everyone who has ever met him says he is a sensational person who cares deeply about others, which is why I would be very surprised if he doesn’t really care what people think of him,” van Cuylenburg said.
“He doesn’t seek recognition or publicity for the good things he does. A lot of people told me he was an amazing person who did so much for everyone, but he didn’t talk about it.
“He gets a lot of encouragement from a lot of people for being a loud, confrontational and aggressive, controversial person and that’s the character we all see, but I’m not sure that’s who he is as a person. than anyone.”
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