Surely you have your own coping strategies for getting through a long week of work: caffeine in elephantine doses, clear communication with colleagues, well-timed breaks, or steady stress-eating.
For Nick Kyrgios, getting through six tennis matches in a row requires a regimen all his own, seen over the span of the Washington Open last week: responsible use of tweeners, consulting strangers in the crowd for advice on match point (three times), underarm serves and underarm serve feints, rushing the net to return a 132-mph serve (and winning), and hand-delivering a functional pair of sneakers to his frustrated opponent.
These are the usual Kyrgios things. He is the sport’s first purely do-it-for-the-Gram player, as he uploads his own highlights and hijinks with slightly embarrassing speed after match’s end. His tricks make him hard to predict on the court, but more importantly, they keep him entertained, which solves the primary problem of his day job. They let him feel engaged with and accountable to a group of people outside his own head. He’s always played better in a team context, or before a fired-up crowd, than against a low-ranked stranger in an empty stadium. All he needs to play well is to recreate those conditions for himself.
When deployed responsibly, these on-brand goofs unlock the ability to perform some mystifyingly off-brand feats. He can win a 14-shot rally in the quarterfinal while sprinting as fast as he has in the last three years on tour—Nick Kyrgios does not like to run—rein himself in after a smashed racket in the semifinal, or overcome a back injury to dig out of a 2-5 first-set tiebreak and win the final, a level of resilience he can’t always muster when his body acts up. Too often in these adverse scenarios, he will take the path of least resistance, tanking, wilting, or melting down. Last week, he stayed the course.
It was ... inspiring? When Kyrgios, who is as cynical and self-defeating as any athlete of that talent level, enters full self-help mode, the winds have changed.
“Growing up, I was a very overweight kid. Got told by coaches, teachers that I wasn’t going to be very good at what I chose to do, which was tennis, and I think people can just relate to people telling you you can’t do anything, and I feel like I’m proving a lot of people wrong,” he said after the semifinal. “I’ve beaten every single one of the best tennis players in the world doing it my way and I’m never going to stop doing that.”
After winning the tournament, he said it was “one of the best weeks of my life,” adding, “I feel like I’ve made major strides and I’m just going to take it one day at a time and hopefully I can continue on this on this new path.”
These are cheesy and almost suspect words coming out of his mouth, but they matter: Sincere self-belief is a prerequisite to winning in tennis.
To approach the title, Kyrgios beat a handful of players he should beat—like the journeyman Gilles Simon, who is always just kind of there, and the plucky but overmatched Yoshihito Nishioka. Then in the last two rounds Kyrgios took out two of the best young players in the game, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev, both of whom have entered the top ten, something Kyrgios has not done. Now ranked No. 27 in the world, the Australian is 5-1 against top-ten players this year, with his only loss a second-round dogfight against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.
This is the sixth title of Kyrgios’s career and his second of the year. This February in Acapulco, he put on an even better show against a scarier slew of opponents. Between those two events it now seems reasonable to check off “500-level title” from the long and somewhat grim list of Things Nick Kyrgios Could Achieve, If Only. That’s progress.
Any true member of the church of Kyrgios knows not to overreact. We’ve been burned too many times to believe that this is the one week that conclusively turns everything around, that rewires his personality for good. Any player, especially this one, can flash white-hot for a week. Talented players have told me and anyone who’ll listen that the most difficult feat in their sport is maintaining that inhuman focus match after match, month after month. If Kyrgios is serving inspirational pap (and 140-mph serves) for 10 straight days in New York, Melbourne, London, or Paris, then maybe it’ll be time to perk up.