I HAVE NO IDEA if Nick Kyrgios will even show up. And if he does, it's hard to be sure which version of the mercurial tennis star I will get. The so-called ‘bad boy’ who has brought the gentleman’s game into disrepute, racking up more fines than any player in history? Or, according to many of his peers on the ATP Tour, the selfless and empathetic young man who galvanised the sport into action during the Australian bushfires of 2020, helping raise more than $5 million in the process? One man, two personas. Right now, I’d be happy with either.
It’s 3pm and we’re due to speak via Zoom the day before our cover shoot. I’ve been promised 45 minutes with the current world No.26, but judging by the messages from his manager and loyal friend, Daniel Horsfall, this may be optimistic. After the week Kyrgios has just had, I can hardly blame him.
Three days prior to our interview, an armed intruder knocked on the door of his family home in Canberra and allegedly pointed a gun at his mother. With his face covered, the man demanded the keys to Kyrgios’s Tesla that was sitting in the driveway. Kyrgios, who was in the house at the time, awoke to the sound of his mother’s screams. The police were able to track the location of the Tesla and apprehend the man who is now awaiting trial in Canberra, though that appears to be of little solace for Kyrgios. According to Horsfall, he’s slept a total of two- and-a-half hours in the three nights since.
A few minutes past 3pm, he makes his arrival. Calling from his bedroom in Canberra, Kyrgios decides to keep his camera off, a shield perhaps against the outside world. I can’t see him but I can hear him and right now, I’ll take it.
“You’ve got Nick here,” he tells me.
I offer some vague condolences in response.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty intense, I’m not gonna lie.”
That’s an understatement: the past few days have been torturous.
Kyrgios’s mum was able to fly to Malaysia to visit family and spend some time recovering; the same can’t be said for her son. Kyrgios, in the midst of recovering from knee surgery that kept him out of the Australian Open in January, has got training to do if he’s to make his return to the court any time soon. Plus there’s the bevy of sponsor commitments and the general upkeep that the business of being Nick Kyrgios requires.
“It’s just when I’m on my own and I’m laying in bed, I’m just thinking about it and replaying the events,” he says. “Like the fact that, you know, my life is . . . I don’t know, it’s just not normal at all. But I never thought anything like this would be happening to me.
“It’s scary because on the best of days I’m pretty anxious anyway. So this has just made it 50 times worse. It’s just at night when my dad’s sleeping and I’m kind of on my own. Every sound I hear, I just . . . You know, if I was in Sydney or Melbourne, that would be the place where I would maybe assume something like this might happen. But this is one of the only places on earth I feel safe.”
His voice trails off, distracted by worst-case scenarios that have been playing on loop in his head for the past few days. So, I start by talking to Kyrgios about one of his true and undying loves: basketball. The NBA playoffs are in full swing and his team, the Boston Celtics, just levelled their series with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Yeah, amazing day for the Celtics,” he offers. “I mean, that was the bright patch of my day.”
You only have to be a casual Kyrgios fan to know of his passion for basketball. He’s said many times, often to the disgruntlement of tennis diehards, that he prefers hooping to hitting. But, for Kyrgios, it’s about more than just what happens on the court. The personalities, the style, the attitudes – the NBA seems the natural home for a player like Kyrgios. A baller living the life of a tennis player.
“I feel like basketball players are definitely more my vibe,” he says. “Most of my friends in Sydney are basketball players and the culture is more relaxed. I love the team environment.”
If it wasn’t for his parents encouraging him to focus on tennis over basketball from a young age, Kyrgios’s story may well have gone in a very different direction. At 1.93 metres tall and naturally athletically gifted, who’s to say where he would have ended up? But the Wimbledon runner-up isn’t one for regrets.
“Look, I wasn’t extremely happy with the decision to completely shut basketball down when I was younger. Obviously it was hard. But, growing up now, it was the best decision I could have made.”
As any athlete will tell you, tennis or otherwise, it’s the foundational years as a junior when the real work is put in. Away from the glory and the prize money, it’s the travel and the daily grind of balancing training with school work, where champions are made. Many look at these years as a means to an end, an arduous step to achieving their ultimate goal. Kyrgios sees it differently.
“Look, it was a simpler time,” he says of his time as a junior. “It was fun. Honestly, it was actually really fun. Me and my mum stayed at shit places. We were staying at backpackers’ hostels, travelling around Australia by car, not flying, just driving six, seven hours. And it was just fun. Like, that’s all I knew. I was having easy Mac ‘n’ Cheese microwave meals for dinner and that was pretty much it. Like, they were the days. And then I guess I kind of just, I don’t know . . . transitioned.”
Transitioned. The word hangs for a moment. It’s unclear as to what or where he transitioned. To life as a pro? To a life lived under scrutiny, your every move analysed and judged? To a life in which armed men arrive at your door?
“I wasn’t playing tennis to become rich and famous,” he continues. “Like, I just played it because that’s all I kind of knew. Like, my parents put me into it and I would just play. I was still at school when I was making quarter finals at Wimbledon and all that type of stuff. It was just a normal thing. I was just playing and then it kind of happened. I’ve never wanted to change my situation.”
It might be the lack of sleep, but Kyrgios drifts at times between answers, his mind drawn to the nostalgia of “simpler times”, or perhaps the trauma of the past week. He’s animated at moments, then morose and withdrawn. When he speaks of his childhood and the eventual “transition”, there’s a tension in his voice, with as much weight in what he says as what he doesn’t.
He’s clearly grateful for the life he’s been afforded, or maybe he’s just too self-aware to bemoan the privileges that come with his profession – such as the $18 million-plus in career prize money before the age of 28. But at the same time, there’s a subtle but unmistakable subtext: I didn’t ask for any of this.
NO PHRASE BETTER SUMS UP the dynamic of men’s tennis since the turn of the millennium than ‘The Big Three’, aka Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. These three players have dominated the modern era, winning a combined 64 Grand Slam titles, with one of the three ending the year as world no.1 every single year from 2004 to 2021 (with the exception of 2016, which went to Britain’s Andy Murray). That’s over a decade-and-a-half with the sport in a stranglehold. That’s not to say this period was boring or predictable. Between Federer’s finesse, Nadal’s vicious top spin and Djokovic’s robotic tenacity, sports fans have been treated to a rivalry that most likely will never be seen again. But with any good thing, it’s what happens next that causes a few issues.
Enter a fresh-faced kid from Canberra by the name of Nick Kyrgios. With Greek and Malaysian ancestry and a name that not a single commentator could pronounce correctly, Kyrgios arrived at Wimbledon in 2014 a complete unknown to face then-world no.1 Rafael Nadal.
Against all odds, the then-19-year-old emerged victorious, defeating the Spaniard in four sets and catapulting himself to international attention in the space of a few short hours. But it wasn’t so much what he did, as how he did it. Throughout the course of the match, the Australian hit 70 winners. Yes, that’s 70 times Nadal was rendered a spectator, watching helplessly as the ball sailed past him. Alongside the undeniable talent was the cheeky audacity. At three games a piece in the second set, Nadal thundered a forehand towards Kyrgios who, rather than adjusting his footwork to make space, simply stuck his racquet between his legs and dinked the ball past an unsuspecting Nadal. The crowd went wild and Kyrgios raised his arms in the air as if to say, You’re welcome. Over the course of the next decade, the between-the-legs shot would become a trademark for the Australian.
Following the match, tennis pundits announced Kyrgios as the natural heir to the throne. “We’re watching a young boy turn into a man,” observed former world no.1 John McEnroe. “We have a new star on our hands.” Within a few years the American would be declaring Kyrgios “the most talented player[he’s] seen in the last ten years”. In short, he had it all. Talent and flair on the court and with his subtle but unmistakable mohawk, a sense of style and individuality off it. Tennis finally had someone to usurp The Big Three and bring the sport to the attention of the next generation.
"Last year was a reminder that I'm able to do it whenever I kind of want to do it."
If only things were that simple. Since Kyrgios’s defeat of Nadal, which culminated in a run to the quarter finals, his career is best summarised as a series of ups and downs. He has reached as high as world no.13, won seven singles titles and last year enjoyed his best run of form by reaching both the quarters of the US Open and the final of Wimbledon where he was downed by the imperious Djokovic in four sets. A good career by any stretch of the imagination, but judged by the expectations laid out upon his arrival, perhaps somewhat of a disappointment. So, why are we still talking about him? Why is the tennis world still obsessed and why did we decide to launch this magazine with Kyrgios on the cover?
Because sport is about more than just facts and figures on a scorecard; legacies more than the number of wins a player racks up over the course of their career. More often than not, it’s about how the athlete, or team, makes us feel. Just occasionally, we feel we are no longer watching a game, but an artform; played not by mortals, but gods. Ali danced, Jordan flew and Messi beguiled; all the while we, as fans, watch on in disbelief, suspended for a moment as we witness a feat that appears to defy the laws of physics. Kyrgios is the same. To watch him play is to surrender all expectations and throw yourself at his mercy. He may be sensational; he may be average. Sometimes, he might not even try that hard. But, love or loathe him, in search of that rare transcendental moment, we’ll keep coming back, time and time again.
If you talk to Kyrgios, he’ll tell you that his perceived failure to live up to the hype is less about ability and more about desire. The ATP Tour is notoriously relentless, requiring players to be on the road for several months of the year, while the ranking system rewards players who play more rather than simply those who win. Kyrgios said earlier this year that he plays on average “one twelfth” of the tennis his opponents do. To do otherwise would be simply unsustainable for him. Regardless, you get the impression that if and when he wants to turn it on, he can. Describing his run of form in 2022, he says it was largely driven by wanting to “shut everyone up”.
“There were just negative comments and people saying, ‘He’s not gonna be able to be at the top of the game anymore’. You know, ‘His time’s gone’ and all this type of stuff. It just rubbed me the wrong way and last year was just a complete reminder that I’m able to do it whenever I kind of want to do it. You know, I’m still able to produce that type of tennis.”
Naturally, alongside this sort of talent comes pressure. Because Kyrgios is not only expected to win, he’s expected to entertain. We see this on the set of our cover shoot; less than 24 hours after our phone interview he’s a different person altogether. In front of the crew of photographers, stylists and videographers, he’s the jovial figure we’ve seen bantering with fans off the court – or, depending on his mood, on the court, often in the middle of a match.
Between outfit changes he emerges from the dressing room looking concerned.
“I think I ripped the pants,” he tells our stylist, who responds with a look of mortal fear. “Only messing!” Kyrgios says, before cracking up and running back inside. Maybe he managed to get some sleep last night or maybe it’s the muscle memory; after a decade in the public eye, slipping into performer mode has become second nature.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Esquire Australia
This side of Kyrgios is also on display for the world to see in the Netflix documentary Break Point. Following the huge success of Drive to Survive, which revolutionised the once-stuffy sport of Formula 1 racing, the suits behind the ATP Tour thought they’d try the same tack, creating a behind-the-scenes look into the inner workings of the sport and its top players. The focal point of the opening episode was none other than Kyrgios and his 2022 Australian Open run. Bear in mind the then-27- year-old was, at the time, ranked outside the top 120 in the world. Here lies the irony of Nick Kyrgios. Despite slumps in form, despite being considered a ‘bad boy’ and blamed for bringing the game into disrepute, the sport still needs him.
The apparent contradiction isn’t lost on Kyrgios. As the series aired, he tweeted: “So after all this, all the media, journalism saying how bad I am for the sport, disrespecting the game & just a pure villain, I am going to be the number 1 episode on Netflix… to grow our fan base, basically trying to put tennis on the map again.”
Whether intended or not, there was another important detail from the Netflix series. One suspects the title Break Point, is more than simply a reference to tennis vernacular – when a player has the opportunity to win a game on the opponent’s serve – but also a reflection of the limits to which the sport pushes its players. Limits that Kyrgios in his ten years on the tour has constantly brushed up against. In 2019, he went through one of his “darkest periods”, a time when he was “lonely, depressed, negative, abusing alcohol, drugs” and pushing away his closest friends and family.
Kyrgios tells us that, today, he’s in a better place. He’s mended relationships with his friends and family, but most importantly with himself. Looking back, he wasn’t prepared for life in the public eye – for the “transition” from the anonymity to the scrutiny.
“I didn’t really realise how many ups and downs there would be,” he says. “In life and in my career at that stage you think everything’s going great and you’re playing really good tennis. But at the same time, I feel like I just wasn’t ready for it. I wish I knew that there was gonna be some really tough times and some really brutal times ahead and there was gonna be some amazing moments . . . At that young age, I would really ride the highs and lows a lot and that was exhausting.
“It was hard when everyone around me was like, ‘Oh bro, you need to do this, you need to do this, you need to do this’. And I didn’t really know these people. [The change] had to come from me. I needed to have that conversation with myself.”
"I just wasn't ready for it. I wish I knew that there was gonna be some really tough times and some really brutal times ahead."
It’s also helped that he has friends on the Tour like Naomi Osaka, the 25-year-old four- time Grand Slam champ, who signed Kyrgios to the management company she founded with long-time agent Stuart Duguid. The pair have formed a relationship off the court based on shared experiences, says Kyrgios.
“To know that there are other, you know ‘stars’ out there that are dealing with their own problems, in a certain way, it makes you feel like you’re not alone, which is important.”
Osaka made headlines in 2021 when she retired from the French Open, citing depression. This may well have happened before, a player leaving a tournament because of mental health concerns, but for it to happen in such a public way and to such a high-profile player felt different. It felt groundbreaking. In light of events like this, I suggest to Kyrgios that perhaps the public is becoming more forgiving of athletes and the trials and tribulations of being a pro sportsman, regardless of the obvious perks it offers. His response is telling.
“I mean the moment I think that we are, I get reminded that we’re getting further away from it. I feel like I’m treated like a robot and a monkey pretty much all the time. To be brutally honest with you, rarely do I find that people that are using me or need me actually care about my wellbeing or how I’m doing.”
"It's fucking crazy the reputation people have created for me at this stage. It's not like that at all."
But among the various accusations, there lies one claim that is a lot more serious, a claim that threatened – or perhaps still threatens – to turn the tide of public opinion firmly against Kyrgios.
In 2022, Kyrgios was accused of domestic violence. After an on-again, off-again relationship with his former partner Chiara Passari, the tennis player was charged with common assault after allegedly pushing Passari outside the apartment block where she lived. Court documents show that Kyrgios was attempting to leave but was blocked from doing so. “Leave me the fuck alone, I’m going home and don’t want to be with you,” he told Passari. During the altercation, Kyrgios was accused of pushing Passari, resulting in her falling down, hurting her shoulder and grazing her knee. When the charge was brought before a Canberra court in December 2022, Kyrgios initially attempted to get the case thrown out on mental health grounds, but while the court heard from Kyrgios’s psychologist that he had suffered from periods of depression and “relied on alcohol and drugs” at some points, it did not amount to a “major” depressive illness. Kyrgios’s lawyers then withdrew the attempt to have the charges dismissed and pleaded guilty. The judge, however, decided to dismiss the charge anyway, citing that while Kyrgios had indeed “acted poorly in the heat of the moment”, the case was “at the lower end of the scale of common assault”. The charge was dismissed and removed from his record.
Following the verdict, Kyrgios released the following statement: “I was not in a good place when this took place and I reacted to a regret. I know it wasn’t okay and I’m sincerely sorry for the hurt I caused. Mental health is tough. Life can seem overwhelming. But I’ve found that getting help and working on myself has helped me to feel better and to be better.”
I cite all these specific details because, in instances like these, details are important. Nuance is important. As the judge acknowledged, this is not a cut-and-dry case. But at the same time, as Kyrgios himself acknowledged, this is also not okay. He raised his hand to a partner and that fact will follow him around forever. Does it make him a bad person? That’s for you to decide. But, in the story of Nick Kyrgios, the man and the athlete, this passage will always be a part of it. Depending on who’s writing it, it will either be a footnote, or a whole chapter, but it will be there, however small; a stain on his reputation.
THIS IS NOT a Nick Kyrgios redemption story. At least, not entirely. As much as he deserves empathy, just like any other human being, the man is flawed.
The racquet smashing and foul-mouthed rants one can chalk up to the emotion of a game that can push even the most stable of minds to ‘breaking point’. But few would excuse insulting opponents’ girlfriends on the court in the way he did against Stan Wawrinka in 2015. Then there was the time he pretended to masturbate at the Queen’s Club Championship in 2018. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at the thought of the tennis establishment clutching their pearls at that one, but nonetheless it’s hardly a good look. The rest of the ‘Nick Kyrgios is a bad boy’ narrative seems to revolve around a supposed lack of professionalism. His refusal to wear all-white at Wimbledon, his use of the underarm serve, his perceived lack of effort in matches, commonly referred to as ‘tanking’. As for Kyrgios, he says he no longer bothers to try and change people’s minds.
“I mean, look, it’s fucking crazy the reputation that people have kind of created for me at this stage. It’s not like that at all, to be honest. I feel like there was a time in my career where I was like, All right, we gotta get a team around us that can change this narrative. But it’s immovable now. I guess when the media creates something and they say it enough times and people see it enough times, it just becomes true. So I gotta just live with it now, I guess.”
There’s also the fact that the criticism of Kyrgios has, at times, said a lot more about those dishing it out, than the man himself. Because for Australia to have a public figure, particularly an athlete, act in a way that throws two fingers to the establishment is nothing new. In fact, it’s almost passé. From Russell Crowe to Lleyton Hewitt, Bob Hawke to Shane Warne, Australia has a habit of gravitating toward personalities with a rebellious streak; those with a twinkle in their eye and a healthy contempt for authority – larrikins, in other words. But, the fact remains that when those personalities have a darker complexion, our forgiveness wanes. After Kyrgios was accused of tanking at Wimbledon in 2015, former Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser told Kyrgios, along with compatriot Bernard Tomić, who was born in Germany to a Bosnian mother and Croatian father, to go “back to where their parents came from”.
According to a study in Stanford Social Innovation Review, this sort of thing is not peculiar to Australia, but an attempt to uphold the traditional (read: white) status quo. In summarising the study, the Review writes: “The standards of professionalism . . . are heavily defined by white supremacy culture – or the systemic, institutionalised centering of whiteness. In the workplace, white supremacy culture explicitly and implicitly privileges whiteness and discriminates against non- Western and non-white professionalism standards related to dress code, speech, work style, and timeliness.”
In layman’s terms, this means that when Kyrgios triggers the ire of fans and pundits alike for rocking his colourful Air Jordans en route to the court at Wimbledon, he is not simply breaking rules, he’s threatening the hierarchy of power and privilege that defines the Western world. If we let him do that, where does it stop?
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Esquire Australia
IF YOU FOLLOW KYRGIOS on social media, or catch him in between matches at a tournament, you will most likely see him clutching his Nintendo Switch, playing a game of Pokémon Go. Alongside his love of basketball and Air Jordans, his passion for gaming is one of his defining characteristics. Of all the Pokémon – and there are more than 1000 – his favourite is Blastoise, a water-type Pokémon known for its blue body and brown shell. Blastoise is also the final evolution of a character called Squirtle, who according to a Pokémon wiki entry, “is usually well behaved, yet it has an underlying rebellious streak. It prefers to stay within a close knit group, but can still enjoy making new friends. Other Pokémon may regard it as difficult and hard to get along with, but only if they have previously gotten on its bad side.”
Whether, like Blastoise, Kyrgios is indeed entering his most evolved state, only time will tell. He’s in a new and committed relationship now with influencer and interior designer Costeen Hatzi who, he says, has helped him look after himself more and focus on his priorities. He’s now happy spending more time at home, “which is not how it used to be,” he says.
“When you’re always wanting that stimulation and drinking and all this type of bullshit, that’s when I think things can go a bit pear shaped,” he continues. “So now, when I’m feeling like shit, I don’t need to go anywhere. I can just be at home and have a nice home-cooked meal, spend some time with my dad, watch some NBA and just take some time for myself.”
"There's a big part of me that is dreading it, at the same time, you know... it's cool to compete but it's stressful as."
He’s also training more, which is something he’ll need for his return to the court. Kyrgios told me he was hoping to be ready for the French Open, but two weeks following our interview he was ruled out of the tournament due to an injury sustained to his foot in the aftermath of the attempted robbery. He’ll now make his return at the Stuttgart Open, ahead of Wimbledon at the start of July. During his absence, he’s been posting tennis content to his Instagram account on an almost daily basis, far more than usual. I ask him if he’s more excited to get back on the court.
“I miss it and I kind of don’t at the same time,” he says. “There’s a part of me that’s really excited to get back out there and play in front of my fans and stuff. But I know how hard it is and how draining that lifestyle is. Like, there’s a big part of me that is dreading it, at the same time, you know . . . It’s cool to compete, but it’s stressful as. It’s not like it’s all sunshine and rainbows when you’re out there.”
The hint of pessimism in his voice is no doubt in part due to his recent experience. Because Kyrgios is less than thrilled with the ATP Tour’s response – or, more to the point, its lack of. “If I was the fucking ATP and one of our biggest players went through something like this, I would definitely have fucking reached out,” he says. “But personally, no one’s reached out to my phone. No one’s sent a message saying, Oh, Nick, by the way, the ATP’s thinking about you during this time, or anything like that, which is fucking abysmal.”
Whatever his thoughts are on the ATP right now, he’ll be there at Wimbledon, competing for that first elusive Grand Slam. Kyrgios has famously said that if he wins a Slam, he’ll most likely retire. I ask him whether that’s still the case.
“Probably,” he says. “I don’t fucking know, bro. Who knows? We’ll see how I feel.”
Whether this happens this year or in the future, you can bet on one thing: we’ll miss him when he’s gone.
Words: Christopher Riley
Photography: Tristan Edouard
Styling: Danielle Soglimbene
Grooming: Kristyan Low
Video: Snackable Media
With special thanks to Marrickville Tennis Club.