Sport

COMMENT

Nick Kyrgios: The Canberra kid will challenge Novak Djokovic at the top of the world

Oliver Brown writes glowingly of Canberra product Nick Kyrgios, but not so glowingly of the city itself.

A much-maligned place, Canberra. One popular car licence plate in Australia's bush capital used to declare: "Canberra - it's not that bad." Another slogan was coined by Bill Bryson, who wrote in his Antipodean travelogue: "Canberra - why wait for death?" Passing through the place this week, it was hard to escape its peculiar contrast of harsh landscape and suburban sprawl, reminiscent of a giant Stepford Wives set etched upon the Moon.

Kyrgios beats Murray in straight sets

Nick Kyrgios has his first victory over Scotsman Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup in Perth.

It also seemed an unlikely birthplace for the truculent enigma that is Nick Kyrgios. The incorrigible Kyrgios loves nothing better than to play the renegade, tossing points away out of pique or taunting opponents about their girlfriends' past relationships. But what could there possibly be for him to rebel against in sleepy Canberra, beyond the city's excess of roundabouts or the fact that its bars have been known to call last orders at 8pm?

The staid background and provocative behaviour of Kyrgios, the 20-year-old best poised to be tennis's next sensation, are difficult to reconcile. But at least the young man's conduct is consistent. In his match this week against Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup in Perth, he did not take kindly to hearing an intoxicated fan daring to offer advice. "Are you playing?" he shouted back.

'I don't think Nick's put a foot wrong so far': Lleyton Hewitt on Nick Kyrgios, pictured.
'I don't think Nick's put a foot wrong so far': Lleyton Hewitt on Nick Kyrgios, pictured. Photo: Getty Images

"Do you want to come down here and play? You just sit in your comfy chair and watch." It was a pity, this brattish interlude, for the most eye-catching aspect of Kyrgios's performance was that he won. In four previous confrontations with Murray, he had taken only a single set, but here he meted out the type of straight-sets punishment to suggest that he could make as profound an impact upon this month's Australian Open as Lleyton Hewitt did by reaching the final of his home major in 2005.

So much for the curse of Australians drawn to face Murray. It was among the more remarkable statistics of the Scot's 11-year career that until this week he had lost to Kyrgios's countrymen just once, to teenager Paul Baccanello at a challenger event in Vancouver. Kyrgios, as has become his wont, proved that history was bunk.

Nobody gave him a prayer when he met Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, but he prevailed in a blaze of audacity, turning a tweener into a winner for good measure. Likewise, few harboured much hope in Montreal last summer that he could trouble Stan Wawrinka, then fresh off a French Open triumph. Kyrgios, however, not only vanquished but verbally marmalised the Swiss - "Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, mate" being the line of that or indeed any season.

Courtesy of the Murray result, Kyrgios approaches 2016 at the slams having beaten three of the world's top five. At last, perhaps, the sport's most impish troublemaker is a talent to be taken seriously. Barely six months ago, he was 'tanking' during his Wimbledon defeat by Richard Gasquet, petulantly patting weak serves back into the net. But in his latest outing against Murray, three times his conqueror in majors, he showed a rare semblance of tactical acumen. "Andy's in his prime, but I knew what my game plan was going to be," he reflected.

Nick Kyrgios plays a forehand against Andy Murray.
Nick Kyrgios during his win over Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup. Photo: Getty Images

It is a worry that Kyrgios is still riding the hamster-wheel of tennis without a full-time coach, having sacked mentor Todd Larkham on the eve of last year's Wimbledon. All players, especially those as skittish and volatile as Kyrgios, stand to gain from the odd tempering voice of rationality. Without an elder's counsel, this Australian prodigy risks compromising his freakish natural ability with more of the outbursts that almost prompted Wawrinka to hit him. Bull-headed though he might be, Kyrgios cannot travel this path alone.

It is a path that beckons him, increasingly, to the summit of the game. Granted, Kyrgios is yet to match his star wattage at Wimbledon with consistency on the regular tour, but he possesses greater versatility than he is often given credit for. Nobody topples Roger Federer on the clay of Madrid, Nadal on the grass of SW19, or Murray on the Plexicushion of Perth without a surfeit of extravagant gifts.

Happily for his prospects, a few of his contemporaries are starting to fall by the wayside. 'Gorgeous' Grigor Dimitrov is so mercurial that he is in danger of being known simply as Maria Sharapova's significant other, while Milos Raonic lacks any of the guile to back up his bazooka of a serve. Japan's Kei Nishikori, similarly, has neglected to capitalise on his improbable run to the 2014 US Open final.

For anybody seeking a future beyond the remorseless supremacy of Novak Djokovic, Kyrgios offers as promising a possibility as exists. His sheer accumulation of victories over the finest players is building to a conclusion that his humbling of Nadal 18 months ago was no fluke. A prediction that Murray once offered, that "we will be seeing more of Nick very soon", is growing in prescience by the day.

So, watch out Canberra, otherwise described as "Pyongyang without the dystopia" in one Economist profile. Soon enough, the city where faceless diplomats dwell could finally have an ambassador to be excited about.

The Telegraph, London

20 comments