The Planet Kyrgios

A couple of weeks ago, our family went to the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. I bring this up for two reasons … well, maybe three reasons.

  1. It was amazing. My family has been making fun of me because of how often I’ve been talking up the Cosmosphere, even to complete strangers. But, see, here’s the deal: I go to a LOT of museums. It’s a hobby. And, inevitably, these museums are fine — usually, we call them “quaint” — but leave no impact at all. We’re in an out in an hour. But the Cosmosphere, it’s legitimately spectacular. For pure space stuff, I liked it more than the Air & Space Museum in Washington. It was much bigger than it looked, the shows were fun, the storytelling was terrific. Hey, I don’t know if you’re going to be anywhere near Hutch — which is outside of Wichita, Kan. — but it’s absolutely worth your time.

  2. Hutchinson, Kansas is where our oldest daughter Elizabeth took her first steps. This is way off the main point here — that’s why I conceded “well, maybe three reasons” — but I don’t see how I can write the word “Hutchinson” without at least mentioning that weird fact. We were in Hutch for the U.S. Women’s Open in 2002, we were staying at a hotel there, and Elizabeth took her first step from the bed toward me in a chair. I wrote about this in The Kansas City Star and, in an unfortunate maneuver I can only attribute to the craziness of being a young Dad, I gently poked fun at the hotel where we were staying. It was intended to be in good fun, but it was a dumb thing to do. I learned this valuable lesson the next day when we opened our door and there was a congratulations basket from the hotel staff complete with a little teddy bear. Boy did I feel like a schmuck.

  3. At the Cosmosphere, I memorized the names of the five moons of Pluto. They are:

(A) Styx
(B) Nix
(C) Charon
(D) Hydra
(E) Kerberos

I do not know of what value it is to know the five moons of Pluto, but I believe they are stuck in my brain forever now.

And, to finally get to the point, I remember the fifth moon, Kerberos, by thinking about my favorite tennis player from Pluto: Nick Kyrgios.

Like so many people in the tennis world, I’m fascinated by Nick Kyrgios. From a pure one-the-court tennis perspective, he’s a supremely, perhaps even uniquely, gifted player with basically everything that you need to dominate the game. He has one of the hardest serves in the world. He is an insane athlete who covers the court like few others. He has great hands — you see him hit the ball with so much touch and feel when he’s on. His down-the-line backhand is one of the killer shots in the game. When he’s at his best, opponents struggle to think of any way to beat him.

And yet, Nick Kyrgios is not the best player in the world. He’s not one of the 10 best players in the world, not one of the 20 best players in the world, not one of the 30 or even 40 best players in the world. Right now, he’s ranked No. 43. That’s actually up a bit. In February, he had dropped all the way to No. 72.

He’s never been past a quarterfinal at a major championship — and he has not been to a quarterfinal since 2015. This year, he has lost to the No. 82, No. 76 and No. 49 players. And at the same time, he has a career 2-0 record against Novak Djokovic and a 3-4 record against Rafa Nadal, and he reached one final where he he beat the fantastic Alexander Zverev, the No. 5 player in the world.

“When Nick wants to play,” Nadal says, “he’s one of the best players in the world.”

When Nick wants to play …

That means: He doesn’t always want to play.

In baseball, I often think about Jeff King. He was the No. 1 overall pick in a 1986 draft that included Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Matt Williams. He wasn’t a particularly big guy, but he had quite a bit of power, better than average speed, and he was a really good first baseman, probably good enough to deserve a Gold Glove or two. If Jeff King had the hunger and ambition of an Albert Pujols, a David Ortiz, a Mike Trout … but he didn’t. He didn’t love the game like that. He hated the spotlight. His manager in Kansas City, Tony Muser, would remember him talking about how he didn’t exactly love the national anthem.

Muser, a Marine, was shocked. Then King explained.

“Every time I hear this song,” he said, “I have a bad day.”

King retired a month into the 1999 season; he was having back problems, which undoubtedly had something to do with it. But it was no coincidence that he retired 10 years almost to the day of his big league debut. He retired almost the minute his big-league pension had kicked in, and he moved to a ranch in Montana. He had literally been counting the days.

“My heart just wasn’t it,” he told a reporter a few years later.

Jeff made me think about how ambition, desire, hunger, passion — all those cliché words that North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams sums up as “want to” — are so often taken for granted among great athletes (or great writers, great musicians, great actors, great artists, etc). But why? Why is that we would expect someone who is GOOD at something to LOVE that something?

I guess it’s because when you see someone who is supremely talented, you just think: How could they NOT loving doing those awesome things they do? I mean, come on, Jeff King hit 154 home runs in his big league career, including one off of Pedro Martinez! One off John Smoltz! One off Tom Glavine! I mean, who wouldn’t LOVE that?

He didn’t love it. He did it because he was good at it.

So it goes with Nick Kyrgios. Who among us tennis mortals wouldn’t sell a piece of our souls to play tennis the way Kyrgios plays even for a day? To hit just one 140 mph serve? To hit just one rocket backhand? To crush a forehand from the baseline so hard that even Rafa Nadal himself cannot get out of the way?

A lot was made of that Nadal target shot, by the way, because Kyrgios didn’t do the tennis courtesy “sorry” wave after that shot. He didn’t do it because he wasn’t sorry. Later, when asked if he would apologize, Kyrgios incredulously said, “Apologize for what?” and then said he had intended to hit Nadal square in the chest.

I actually found this particular thing pretty funny (I’m fine with the courtesy wave but don’t feel like it’s worth fighting over), but really it points to a whole other part of Kyrgios — the fighter, the rebel, the iconoclast, the rage monster, the referee’s nightmare and, frankly, the jerk — that doesn’t interest me nearly as much.

No, the thing that makes Kyrgios so endlessly fascinating to me is that he’s self aware about his own lack of interest in becoming a great tennis player, his ambivalence about his extraordinary talent for this game. When you hear him interviewed, he doesn’t hide from it in the slightest way. He talks about Nadal’s insane intensity on every point not with jealousy but the way a zoologist might talk about the hunting habits of a lion. When asked if he wants to be No. 1 in the world, he shrugs and admits that he doesn’t really want to work that hard.

You see this inner battle every single time he takes the court. He needs to try stuff just to stay interested. He will, out of nowhere, just hit a ball between his legs or try some crazy, jumping, alley-oop slam or go for a bananas shot that only a handful of people earth could make even one out of 20 times. Nobody in the world hits more all-out second serves than he does (and he will throw in a few underhand serves too).*

*Let me come out here entirely in favor of the underhand serve. In tennis these days, the trend is for the returner of serve to stand 10, 15, even 20 feet behind the baseline. This helps negate the 130-mph serves, and it is a perfectly reasonable defense. But, it then follows, it’s a perfectly reasonable counter for huge servers like Kyrgios to throw in the underhand serve.

And, in addition to trying crazy shots to keep himself interested, he will also make astonishing gaffes. In this same Wimbledon match against Nadal last week, Kyrgios was playing shot for shot with one of the finalists for greatest player ever. Kyrgios lost a crushing third set tiebreaker (the first time he had lost a tiebreak to Nadal by the way), but rebounded and forced another tiebreak in the fourth. On the first point, he forced a lollipop lob from Nadal, one that honestly any tennis junkie, including yours truly, would have had a better than average shot of putting way.

Kyrgios dunked it into the bottom of the net. It was as bad a shot as you will ever see a professional tennis player hit, much less a professional tennis player with the Greek God talents of Nick Kyrgios.

And … that was it. He was mentally gone. The match was over right then and there.

After the loss, Kyrgios was peppered by reporters interested in the irresistible story of the prodigy rebelling against his own talent. One even asked Kyrgios how he wanted to be remembered as a tennis player (to which Kyrgios sensibly answered that it was a weird thing to ask of a 24-year-old).

Then someone asked him what he admired about Rafa, and he gave what I thought was an amazing answer:

“You know, he plays every point,” Kyrgios said. “You know, he doesn’t take one point off. And I feel like we’re polar opposites. I struggle so hard to just play every point with a routine and have the same patterns, and he just — one-two punch, his first serve and his first forehand is probably the best one-two punch in the world apart from Federer. Just his ability to bring it every day and compete is special. It’s not easy."

And a bit later:

“I know that I’m capable. I know that I can bring a level. You know, I haven’t put in enough hours. I probably haven’t trained enough. I don’t have a coach. I haven’t been doing enough gym. And I can still go out there today and be able to bring a level that, you know, can compete with the world’s best and have chances to win the match.

“I know there are things I can do, but I like the way I do things. At the end of the day, it’s tennis. Is it really that important? I mean obviously everyone here would say, 'Yeah.’ But, for me, it’s not so important.”

Among great athletes, it’s uncommon — almost unheard of — for someone to say, “It’s not so important.” Many will come out swinging at Kyrgios for saying it.

But I think it’s actually the most common feeling in the world. I wanted to be a ballplayer when I was a kid, and I wanted to be a tennis star when I was a teen, and in both cases, when it got hard, when it became clear how much the odds were against me, when it seemed the only sensible thing to do was stop, I stopped. For me, it was not so important.

Later, when I writing got hard, I did double down. It WAS that important.

Would I have kept going in tennis had I been given Nick Kyrgios’ talent? I can believe “yes,” but I don’t know. In truth, people like Rafael Nadal, people like Serena Williams, people like Kawhi Leonard or Tom Brady or Diana Taurasi or Katie Ledecky, they’re the oddballs, they’re the miracles. How in the world could you ever expect that much ambition, talent and love to converge around one thing? Wouldn’t you think, on a planet with 7.5 billion people, that person who loves something the most would lack the necessary talent, while the person with the greatest talent would naturally gravitate toward something else?

Yes, of course, it is tempting to ask: How good would Kyrgios be if he had Nadal’s aspiration and determination? But I suspect when you look at human nature, the opposite question is more pertinent:

How in the world did Rafa Nadal happen in the first place?