Watching the ATP these days is a bit of a game within a game. While there are match results, tournament results, and Slam results from week to week, the most popular game in town is prognosticating on the future of the Big Three — will Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal overtake Roger Federer’s Grand Slam record? How many French Opens will Rafael Nadal win? Will any NextGen or NextNextGen or really anyone topple them from the top of the game? But perhaps the biggest question mark around is — what if Nick Kyrgios were more serious, what if he acted more like Roger or Rafa or Novak and took his game more seriously, what could he achieve then? What if he stopped the underhand serves and the trash talking and the tantrums?
Maybe those are the wrong questions. Let’s imagine an alternate universe where Nick Kyrgios gives anodyne press conference quotes, talks about how great his opponents are, and grinds away at trying to topple the Big Three and anyone else between him and the big titles — while remaining perfectly pleasant all the while. Does that Nick Kyrgios win titles? Do we even want to watch?
It’s a funny thing, but more than 15 years into the reign of the Big Three, the question should really be, why aren’t there more players like Nick Kyrgios? How is it that we are looking at a third generation of players who revere the men who continue to hoard the big and small prizes in the sport? Is the price of all of this bonhomie a lack of killer instinct?
During his early period of dominance, it was often said that Roger Federer was able win games or even matches because he was so nice that his opponents couldn’t muster up the competitive fire to challenge him effectively. It was as if Federer was able to use that force field of nice to prevent opponents from getting a foothold into his game. That isn’t to say that Federer couldn’t, and can’t, be salty at times — but all of that locker room friendliness still molds the ATP tour today.
And, it’s true, Djokovic and Nadal have not exactly suffered in this era of good — or at least repressed — feelings. But, it’s also true that Djokovic has spent a large portion of his career (if not all of it) publicly minimizing his antipathy towards Federer while likely privately using it as motivation. Nadal was beating Federer from the beginning, so his motivation was less about animus and more about accomplishments. And all who came after have more or less fallen into line — right behind the three guys winning everything.
What does all of this have to do with Nick Kyrgios? Well, he’s one of the few players on the tour who isn’t at all swayed by respect for the Big Three. And he is willing to use every weapon he has to beat them. Underhand serves, check. Trash talk, check. Shots at the body, check. Lack of faux apology wave, check. He wants to get into their heads — he’s willing to have a street fight to win against them. How many other players can we say that about over the past 15 years?
That isn’t to say that all of his conduct is ok — no one condones the verbal abuse of officials, or using a woman’s relationship history to taunt her boyfriend during a match. But, Kyrgios isn’t wrong about some things — he shouldn’t have to play at Nadal’s place when Nadal isn’t serving, for example. And there’s nothing wrong with an underhand serve, especially if your opponent is practically in the stands waiting to return serve. And, are we really losing anything if he doesn’t faux apologize for net cords or body shots?
What Kyrgios does not bring in consistency, he makes up for in intensity. Watching Kyrgios play any of the Big Three is must see TV — sure, in part for the antics, but mostly for the tennis. The fact of the matter is that Kyrgios is good enough to beat anyone on any given day. It remains to be seen whether Kyrgios has the consistency and the physical durability to last through seven matches at a Major or to make deep runs at tournaments for years on end. But maybe it’s time to enjoy him for what he does bring to the court. After all, wouldn’t you rather watch Rafael Nadal fired up like he was today against Kyrgios than watch him cakewalk through a reverential field at Roland Garros?
The flip side of a “golden era” is a certain level of predictability. Kyrgios is — as loathsome as I find the term — a true disruptor, in a figurative and literal sense. In an era where there are generations of players who are, more or less, happy to be there, while the Big Three dominate the sport, Kyrgios is decidedly not. He’s ambivalent about being there, and wants to take it to the Big Three at every opportunity. Isn’t that more important than whether we think it’s respectful to use an underhand serve?