Nick Kyrgios' verbal punches would carry more weight if he won more. (Photo: Hamish Blair, AP)
Nick Kyrgios had just finished slamming world No. 1 Novak Djokovic again when he stopped his news conference following a first-round win at the Australian Open to admire his work.
“That was a good (expletive) answer bro,” Kyrgios told himself. “Bang! Nailed it, bro.”
Whatever his shortcomings as a pro tennis player, Kyrgios understands good content. And he knows how to deliver it, whether it’s provoking the game’s great players, verbally abusing umpires or asking random fans for advice on where he should aim his serve (yes, he really did that on several match points during the 2019 Washington event he won).
For all the criticism he gets from fellow players and the on-court antics that too frequently go over the line, the 25-year-old Australian is one of the few attractions in tennis with the charisma to break through and draw new fans into the game.
The problem, as this year’s first Grand Slam gets underway, is that Kyrgios’ various beefs would be so much more entertaining — and so much better for tennis — if they actually meant something outside of a soundbite.
In a sport where there’s been far too much deference and even reverence shown to Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer from the next generation, Kyrgios’ willingness to shoot his shot is a breath of fresh air. The problem is, when you’re ranked 47th and you’re not really a factor at the Grand Slams, does it really amount to much?
MORE: Krygios: Americans 'selfish' to proceed with 2020 U.S. Open
By the way, for as much as Kyrgios gets labeled as the current über-brat of tennis, he’s not wrong in this particular beef with Djokovic. Going back to last summer, Kyrgios was highly critical on social media of several players for their behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably the infamous Adria Tour that Djokovic tried to launch in Serbia and Croatia as a series of exhibition matches.
For anyone who was trying to approach the pandemic responsibly, images of players partying at nightclubs and stands packed with fans looked awful from the start. It became even worse when several participants, including Djokovic, contracted the coronavirus.
Kyrgios took another run at Djokovic during the pre-Australian Open quarantine, calling him “a tool” when Djokovic wrote a letter to Tennis Australia seeking better living arrangements for the players.
Asked to respond in his pre-tournament press conference, Djokovic threw a few more logs on the fire.
“My respect goes to him for the tennis he’s playing,” Djokovic said. “I think he’s a very talented guy and he’s got big game and he’s proven he has a quality to beat any player really in the world in the past. Off the court, I don’t have much respect for him to be honest and that’s where I’ll close it. I really don't have any further comments for him and his own comments for me or anything else he’s trying to do.”
So of course, as soon as Kyrgios got off the court Monday after his first-round win over Frederico Ferreira Silva, he was asked to respond and did not disappoint.
“It’s a strange one for me because I read his comments,” Kyrgios said. “He said he doesn’t respect me off the court. I’m like, look it would make complete sense to me if he said, ‘I do not respect the guy on the court’ because I understand if he doesn’t agree with some of my antics on the court that I’ve done in the past and when we’ve played matches I think I’ve been pretty good towards him.
“But I’m not quite sure how you can’t respect me off the court. I feel like I’ve gone about things extremely well especially during the pandemic. I was driving around delivering food to people during the pandemic that didn’t or couldn’t get the supplies. I was extremely careful about what I was doing. I didn’t want to spread the virus to anyone, now I’m actually trying to donate meal kits to people who need food.
"I have my foundation so it’s very strange to me, like, why he would say he doesn’t respect me off the court. I actually do a lot off the court. But he’s a very strange cat, Novak is. Heck of a tennis player but unfortunately someone that is partying with his shirt off during a global pandemic, I don’t know if I can take any slack from that man. That’s as bad as it gets for me.”
Again, on the substance, give the nod to Kyrgios. But in the bigger picture, would anyone care if the same words were uttered by Alexander Bublik, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Richard Gasquet or Jordan Thompson?
Most likely, unless you’re the kind of fan who’s watching the Tennis Channel all the time, you’ve probably never heard of those guys. But they’re the players directly in front of and behind Kyrgios in the rankings.
If he’s this relevant and able to create this much buzz at 47th in the world, imagine what he could do if he actually got results worthy of his immense potential.
When Kyrgios attacks Djokovic, some tennis fans will be entertained and others will roll their eyes. But if somehow this was happening while they were playing important matches, it would be one of the most electric rivalries in sports.
Instead, Djokovic is going to keep grinding out deep Grand Slam runs and Kyrgios is probably going to go home early because history says that’s what he always does. Since his breakthrough win over Nadal as a 19-year-old at Wimbledon seven years ago on his way to the quarterfinals, Kyrgios has only made one other quarterfinal and four Round of 16 appearances in 20 Grand Slams. He’s almost never around long enough for the Twitter beefs to translate into on-court drama.
That’s too bad for Kyrgios and too bad for tennis because when he’s focused and fit, he’s got enough power and creativity to match up with the best in the world. Kyrgios, in fact, is 2-0 against Djokovic with both wins in 2017. He’s also beaten Nadal three times, is 3-3 against multiple Grand Slam champ Stan Wawrinka and has played some epic matches against Federer with one win in 2015.
Every time Kyrgios seems like he’s getting it together, like in 2019 when he won events in Acapulco and Washington, D.C., there’s another on-court episode, another meltdown, another tumble down the rankings.
As long as he’s got a Twitter account and a willingness to call out the best players in the history of the game, Kyrgios can stay in the headlines. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But unless he proves to be more than an irritant and a critic to the top players and starts taking big trophies from them, it just feels like a sideshow.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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