INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—The camera strips so much from tennis. We know this, clearly, since we pay good money and haul our bodies into discomfort just to see it up close. Part of what it removes is all the little interstitial, untelevised moments that might give flesh to the personalities on court. Moments like these help humanize a guy like Nick Kyrgios, who has given the cameras so much fodder for easy caricature. From up close, on Sunday, it looked like he won a tennis match (easily), and some hearts and minds in the crowd (if temporarily).
After his opponent Horacio Zeballos, a journeyman a decade his senior, hit a fine groundstroke, Kyrgios would bat a palm to racket in mute applause, sometimes muttering compliments. When Zeballos, no fire-breather on serve, smacked two nice ones right by him with no chance of return, the 21-year-old said, loud enough for anyone to hear, and without irony: “Nice serving.” Sure, these are not extraordinary gestures within the larger context of tennis etiquette, but they are pleasant displays of decency, from someone who’s earned a rep for its complete absence. Countervailing evidence, you know? The people in the crowd there vocally appreciated him.
That had a lot to do with the caliber of tennis Kyrgios played yesterday. These 6-3, 6-4 sets came as close as Kyrgios ever gets to a bloodless, wholesome day at the office. Mindful footwork, zero overt shows of negativity, lots of clean forehands. At least one or two of his usual feats of pure feel, which are hard not to marvel at, no matter your overall opinion of him. As he closed in on victory, he shook up his tactics, and began pressing forward into the court a little more vigorously; watch him end this serve-and-volley play with a bead of honey.
The touch shot frothed up the audience into a good mood that it never really settled down from. It didn’t hurt that this last set played out in a perfect desert afternoon—Kyrgios later said that he loves the conditions here in the Coachella Valley because they replicate the bone-dry heat of his native Australia. Palm trees fringed the far side of the court, and past them sat dark hills like piles of cocoa powder. As the setting sun spilled over half the court it left a serrated fault line running through its center. From my vantage point on the sun-washed side, both players were cast in the weird, hazy type of light that illuminates each speck of dust. There are unexpected benefits to watching tennis in these conditions: If Kyrgios took a hard cut at a groundstroke, and you were staring hard enough at the point of impact, you could see him literally hitting the fuzz off the ball.
Several dust clouds later, Kyrgios found himself up 5-4, and serving to close out match. Early in this game, he extended another kind gesture, this one slightly more unusual: Though Kyrgios had been awarded a point, he encouraged Zeballos to challenge the call. In effect he was telling Zeballos that his last shot had actually nicked the line and the linesman had it wrong. The crowd murmured. Zeballos went along with the suggestion. And when, on replay, Kyrgios was proved correct by the slimmest margin, Zeballos smiled, and people applauded this show of honesty. A few minutes later Kyrgios had won the match.
Is that an unimpeachable example of good sportsmanship? Or is it the cocksure posturing of a kid who knows he’s locked up the win, and can afford to dispense some courtesies here and there? There are infinitely many ways to interpret these same signs, depending on how charitable you want to be. You can play—and TV commentators do love to play—this dumb Rorschach game with every single thing Kyrgios does on court. Between points he paces around in an exaggerated, round-shouldered slouch that becomes impossible to ignore, once you notice it. Is it in affectation of world-weariness, a kid sick of the game he just happens to dominate? Is it just, you know, the way his back is shaped? Is it just the odd stoop of a former fat kid who’s still figuring out how he fits into a new frame? (That’s a familiar feeling for me. If there’s a reason why I play Kyrgios apologist, it’s because a) it’s fun to watch him play tennis and b) he gives all childhood chubsters hope of athletic stardom.)
Right after the match, the on-court interviewer asked Kyrgios how he felt about his quarter of the draw at this BNP Paribas Open. She described it, accurately, as perhaps the most difficult in tennis history, because it features Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, all of whom won on Sunday to move onto the third round. And she probably expected, in return, some tact, some reverence, some lip service to the greats. But Kyrgios intended to tell the truth. He was unfazed by the challenge ahead, and happy to explain why. While I can’t offer his reply verbatim, since it came out so fast and so confidently, I assure you it included the words “obviously” and “I’ve beaten them all,” fewer than five words apart. Nick Kyrgios is not worried about the brutal draw because, obviously, he has beaten them all.
And there are no lies there. Kyrgios has beaten three of the all-time greats—in fact, has beaten each of them on his very first try. (Djokovic, eating defeat two weeks ago in Acapulco, burped up a grumpy, 12-word press conference.) In other sports, a youngster talking flippantly about the old guys might not any turn heads; kids will always yap. In the bleachers of this particular sporting event, though, sat a man in wraparound shades who’d been cheering Kyrgios on all day, entranced by his play. Then Kyrgios spoke his punk shit, and the hypnosis was over; soon this guy was shaking his head, chuckling incredulously, and elbowing his way out of the bleachers. “Fuck him,” the sunglasses man said to me, or to no one in particular, on his way out. As hard as tennis may be laboring to shake its prudish, patrician image, many of the people that populate it still cherish decorum, deference to elders, and all that good old-fashioned stuff.
That part—respect for the greats—came a little later, though only if you were there to hear it. During his press conference, a sedate Kyrgios delivered praise for Roger Federer. He paid homage to Federer’s “low-percentage game,” admiring, in detail, how the Swiss master takes the ball early, comes in often, hits his spots with his serves. It sounded like a laudatory blog post. It sure sounded like admiration, if not deference. At some point, though, it just becomes so exhausting to parse the difference, and after a performance like Sunday’s, you end up far more curious about whether he can beat them than whether he pays them his dues. He’ll have to survive another round to take a shot at an elder statesman, though: His next match is Alexander Zverev, the other buzzed-about, high-ceiling prospect, though one whose work ethic never goes questioned.