I’ve always wanted to have a way to keep track of a player’s development. More often than not you’re relying almost exclusively on memory, and it’s not like you can see young players on TV (or streams) all that often anyway. And we know the kind of tricks memory can play on us.
It occurred to me that I could take a snapshot of sorts of a given young player in the ATP or WTA, and then compare these snapshots as the player develops (or stagnates). To inaugurate this series, I took a look at Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, who is all of 18 years old. The 6’2 Aussie lost to David Ferrer yesterday in straight sets, 7-5, 6-3, 6-2. I caught glimpses of his match, but then watched the whole first set once again to be able to fully examine the many facets of this particular prospect.
I’ll use the Verdict scale for evaluating each part of Kyrgios game. In case you haven’t seen the scale, here it is:
So, without further ado, let’s pick apart all the things Nick Kyrgios can do on a tennis court:
You can tell right away that the serve is one of Kyrgios main strengths. He has one of those nice, smooth motions that includes a quirk or two and reminds you of past great servers. His numbers for the match suggest that he won’t be joining the likes of Raonic or Janowicz, who can routinely pop first serves at over 130 or even 140 mph. Kyrgios’ fastest first serve today clocked in at 129 mph, and Nick averaged 118 mph on that delivery. That’s not nearly bad, obviously.
What I think what makes his serve a strength is his ability to hit the corners of the box from both the Ad court and the Deuce court off the same toss. This makes it difficult to read, and if the kid varies the patterns often enough, he can drive returners crazy. There’s not much of a body serve yet, but that can be developed. One thing I did notice is that Nick does like that T serve from the Deuce court quite a bit.
The second serve can be a bit of a liability. There were far too many of them that landed square in the middle of the service box and got summarily devoured by Ferrer. The foundation is in place for this shot to improve, though.
This is another strength for the Aussie teen. What I like about the way he connects on this shot is the takeback: it provides great disguise, which combined with Nick’s ability to generate pace at will off that wing, could lead to the development of a deadly weapon. I was also impressed with Kyrgios ability to use his forehand to go inside-out, inside-in, and cross-court with ease.
I also liked how Nick looks to establish himself in the middle of the court and dominate points with his forehand. That’s an essential element of contemporary tennis, so he seems well equipped for the big leagues in this respect.
One thing I didn’t like: his obsession for trying to hit point-ending down-the-line forehands that either missed, or weren’t good enough to spare him from losing the point via a Ferrer cross-court backhand into a wide open court.
This … is not a strength. Nick doesn’t have a bad swing on that two-hander either. It’s just that he seems to want to guide the ball way too much instead of accelerating upon impact and putting some spin on that ball. Hence, a lot of his backhands end up flying on him – or if he’s late to the “guiding,” (and forgets to bend his knees) land directly in the net. It’s a flat, clean stroke that doesn’t lend himself a whole lot of margin for error. That was the case today, as he ended up with 19 groundstroke backhand unforced errors in just three sets.
Also, Ferrer picked up on the fact that Kyrgios’ “safe” backhand is always cross-court. Some truly atrocious misses came when Nick tried going down the line. A couple of unremarkable one-handed slices made their way into the match, but they had a short stay. Not that they were missed.
Here Kyrgios reminds me not of a tennis player, but of a basketball player. He walks around the court like Shawn Marion (who played for the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, and Dallas Mavericks, among others). Nick lumbers a bit, so when I first saw him, I assumed he was one more tall dude. Not so: he’s “only” 6’2, according to the ATP site.
The young Aussie is not one to take a whole lot of little steps – he’s got very long legs (a la Raonic), and bounces off them a little bit like Marin Cilic does, albeit with a little less grace.
What I don’t see in Nick is that explosiveness off a stationary position that is conducive to above-average defense and court coverage. He’s one of those guys who can move quite fast, but needs a head of steam to reach that kind of speed. Still, I wouldn’t call his movement a liability just yet.
5. Return of serve
This is really not a strength, and I’m guessing it’ll be something Nick and his team work on quite a bit in the following years. I like that the young Aussie has a very aggressive second serve return stance, but it might be a little too aggressive. A couple of times Nick was around two or three feet inside the baseline to return Ferrer serves (badly). Of course, he probably had great success in the minor leagues of tennis with this kind of position, but that’s simply unsustainable at the ATP level. If he takes two steps back, he’ll give himself a better chance to return second serves more consistently. Particularly off his problematic backhand wing.
In terms of stats, Nick was credited with 20 return of serve unforced errors. That’s quite high, and as a reference, Ferrer finished with all of three.
As for first serve returns, that lack of explosiveness hurts him a bit, and he’ll need to compensate that with anticipation. Experience will help him avoid numbers like today, where Nick only managed to win six first serve return points (out of 46) in the whole match. That’s good for just 13%.
6. Tactical Awareness/Court Awareness/Shot Selection
It seemed to me that Nick didn’t really try to execute a given gameplan other than try to find ways to hit his favorite shots (i.e, forehands) as often as he could. That’s more than fine – one Roger Federer does the same thing on occasion. However, as Kyrgios wades through the grind of the ATP tour, he’ll find that unless you’re Roger Federer, you might want to make a few adjustments depending on who you’re playing.
In terms of court awareness, Nick got himself in bad situations due to ill-advised shot selection. As most young players are prone to be, he’s not yet fully aware of the open spaces he might generate by going for a shot from a spot on the court that might leave him vulnerable elsewhere. He’s also in the process of learning to identify the quality of his own shots. By this I mean knowing when you hit a good, deep shot, and being able to cover for a short, mediocre shot that your opponent can pounce on. A few times Kyrgios hit mediocre cross-court backhands and didn’t even hint at covering the impending Ferrer down-the-line backhand.
It’s not surprising that Kyrgios is still green in this area – the opposite would be, really. Having good court awareness takes a few years to develop, and the only way to do it is to play a lot of ATP level matches.
6. Demeanor/Competitive Spirit
Kyrgios isn’t a very expressive individual, though he did seem to get irritated with himself a few times during the match (particularly in the key game of the first set, when he got broken at love to lose it). It seemed to me that Nick was engaged throughout the match, trying to take in the rare (for him at this point) challenge of playing one of the world’s five best tennis players. As his backhand let him down more and more, he became a bit crestfallen, but he kept competing. Which was a good thing to see.
7. Projected Ceiling
Right now, Kyrgios looks like top 20 material. A good serve and a good forehand can take you there. Improvements on the backhand, return of serve and shot selection could see him reach the fringe of the top 10, but I don’t think he’ll go higher than that. Still, he’s fun to watch, so I’ll be rooting for him to make the very tough transition into the ATP World Tour. Right now, his ranking is not good enough to get into main draws, and like at this US Open, he’ll have to play qualies. Which for a young guy like him who has plenty to improve, is not a bad thing at all.