It was soon after his grandmother passed away that Nick Kyrgios felt his passion for tennis begin to wane.
Julianah Foster was not only his biggest supporter, but also his greatest source of motivation and Kyrgios openly admits he lost his way in the years following her death.
It’s clear that the Aussie star, regularly dubbed ‘the bad boy of tennis,’ hasn’t always enjoyed his time in the sport, but an enforced hiatus for much of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic has allowed him to recharge and gain a new perspective.
For the first time since stepping foot onto the professional circuit, Kyrgios was able to spend a prolonged period of time at home with his family and, in his words, “didn’t touch a tennis racket for almost four months.” It allowed him to regain some family time he sometimes felt tennis had stolen from him.
The 25-year-old’s prodigious talent has never been in question – he’s without doubt one of the most naturally gifted players on the tour – but it’s more often been his on-court antics that attract headlines.
His behavior on court came under renewed scrutiny again last week when Kyrgios took umbrage with a questionable time violation call from a twitchy umpire during the Murray River Open, a warm up event ahead of the Australian Open.
On Friday he delivered an expletive-laden outburst which saw him handed a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, before the Australian smashed his racquet on the court and threw it into the empty stands.
Then, at the Australian Open on Wednesday, Kyrgios lived up to his box-office reputation by fighting back to beat Frenchman Ugo Humbert in five sets. There were smashed rackets and arguments with the umpire but, more importantly, the Australian produced mesmerizing tennis to complete an epic comeback.
He saved two match points and whipped the reduced crowd into a frenzy with a stunning selection of winners. In many ways, it was a match that encapsulated Kyrgios’ career to date.
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Kyrgios had been something of a reformed figure following a much-needed break from tennis in 2020, being outspoken on the questionable behavior from some of the sport’s stars during the pandemic, but it’s clear he remains plagued by the hot-headedness that has come to define much of his career.
He said there had been a “massive question mark” about his participation in the Australian Open as he battles a long-term knee issue and struggles to mentally prepare following a period of isolation.
“My relationship with tennis is definitely a bit of a love-hate relationship,” Kyrgios told CNN’s Patrick Snell in January. “But in saying that, it’s something that I’ve dedicated my entire life to. I definitely lost my way on the court a couple of years back. I was very confused.
“I didn’t really want to play anymore and I didn’t really feel as if I had the drive. I didn’t have the fire in the belly anymore. I lost my grandma, she was my best friend. She was probably my biggest drive into playing tennis, she put all of that time into my career and when she passed away and I didn’t see her as much as I wanted the last year, I kind of blamed it on tennis.
“I felt like it kind of took me away from, you know, the things that really mattered to me and I was losing just motivation.”
To rediscover the passion he had lost, Kyrgios knew he needed to find another reason to play the game.
So, in 2017, he founded the NK Foundation, a charity that helps provide children from underprivileged backgrounds the opportunity to play tennis, access to support services and low cost accommodation and find routes into employment and education.
Last year, the foundation was granted funding to build a tennis center in Canberra – Kyrgios’ home city – which would provide at least 10 full sized courts in an area in “desperate need” of them, he said at the time.
“I decided that I needed to play for something bigger than myself and I decided to start the NK foundation,” Kyrgios says. “I tried to really just put everything I do into just giving and helping and just trying to do good every day and that’s what drives me to play now.
“What I can get out of [tennis] is pretty special and not many people can have that platform to help. So that’s been really important – it was massive that I found my passion again.”
Holding Djokovic ‘accountable’
As the coronavirus pandemic was raging through Europe last summer, Novak Djokovic hosted the Adria Tour, which was scheduled to be played in four cities from June 13 through July 5.
Viewers were stunned to see thousands of fans packed into the stadium, with very few wearing masks and little social distancing regulations being observed. The players also shook hands, hugged and took selfies with fans afterwards.
During the tournament, players including Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Alex Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov were filmed dancing in a packed Belgrade nightclub.
The Adria Tour was unsurprisingly canceled prematurely when Djokovic, his wife Jelena, three other players, three coaches and one player’s pregnant wife tested positive for the virus. Djokovic subsequently apologized for hosting the Adria Tour event.
At the time, Kyrgios was openly critical of those players and believes it was crucial for someone to hold them to high standards, even if they didn’t hold them for themselves.
“I think it’s very important, especially when [he’s] one of the leaders of our sport,” Kyrgios says of Djokovic. “He has to be setting an example for all tennis players out there and he has to set an example for tennis. When he was doing some of the things he was doing during the global pandemic … I think it just wasn’t the right time.
“I know everyone makes mistakes but, you know, even some of us go off track sometimes and I think we have to hold each other accountable. We’re colleagues at the end of the day, we compete against each other, we play the same sport and no one else was really holding him accountable.
“As I said, everyone loses their way a little bit, but I think he needed to just pull it back. I’m not doing any of this sort of stuff for media attention or anything. You know, these are the morals that I’ve grown up with, and as I said, I was just trying to do my part.”
When Australian Open participants first began arriving in the country, more than 72 players had to undergo a “hard quarantine” in their Melbourne hotel rooms after three separate charter flights into the city each had passengers that tested positive for Covid-19, meaning everyone on board the three aircraft had to isolate on arrival.
Complaints from certain players about their quarantine conditions prompted a backlash from some Australians, who were frustrated with the preferential treatment afforded to the Australian Open stars. In December, tens of thousands of Australian citizens and permanent residents were unable to return home due to the country’s strict international arrival caps.
Following the complaints, Djokovic put forward a list of proposals that would loosen the restrictions on the quarantining stars, all of which were flatly denied by the Victoria Premier, Daniel Andrews.
The eight-time Australian Open champion said his “good intentions” were “misconstrued” after being criticized by some fans for putting the suggestions forward.
“I mean, look, these conditions that he has, he’s in a penthouse in Adelaide with a tennis court,” Kyrgios says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about perspective. I think we’re all getting paid to play the Australian Open. We’re getting paid very handsomely, all the players to even just attend the Australian Open.
“So I don’t feel there’s any sort of room for complaints about the two weeks of quarantine to make sure everyone’s healthy, make sure we can really, as a group, just handle it way better. I don’t understand why there is as much complaint as there is going on.”
READ: All Australian Open players in quarantine test negative as tournament draw is announced
Becoming a leader
This time last year, much of Australia was being ravaged by devastating bushfires that killed 33 people and an estimated three billion animals.
Kyrgios posted a tweet ahead of the Australian Open saying that he would be donating $200 for each ace that he hit during every tournament he played in that summer. What happened next was beyond his wildest imagination.
Overnight, the tweet went viral and players from all over the world followed his lead and pledged their own donations to the cause. His efforts culminated in a pre-Australian Open charity fundraiser featuring the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka.
By the end of that evening, the total number raised for the relief efforts in the country stood at $3.8 million (almost 5 million AUSD).
“That was an incredibly tough time,” Kyrgios recalls. “I can’t believe it was a year ago where those bushfires really took their course throughout Australia. Canberra, my home town, actually had the most toxic air in the world. At one stage, I couldn’t go outside. You couldn’t even see my garden at the front of my house. It was incredibly bad.
“But, you know, it really just started with one tweet. I was at dinner and I tweeted it and it caught up. I never in a million years thought that it would get the traction it did. It kind of spread throughout Australia. Then all of a sudden it just became a bit of a movement globally and it was special.
“I really set the tone. I wanted to have a night before the Australian Open kicked off with some of the greatest players of all time: Serena Williams, Roger Federer. We raised, I think, almost [five] million dollars … just playing in that arena, giving the people some entertainment.
“There were some of the volunteers that were fighting the bush fires watching in the front row. It was amazing just to get an insight into what it was like for them, the struggles they went through. It was awesome.
“I felt every time I went out on the court during last year, I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. I thought there were a lot of people that want me to do well and it was incredible. It was, it really was incredible.”
‘Social media is a killer’
Kyrgios is a huge basketball fan and keeps a keen eye on the NBA.
One of his favorite players is LeBron James, who he admires for his readiness to address issues of social inequality, as well as his exploits on the court.
Kyrgios was born to a Greek father and a Malay mother and as a minority in Australia says he has encountered racism during his life.
Having been inspired by James for using his platform to speak out on racial injustice, he decided to do the same.
“As someone that’s colored in Australia, I’ve dealt with racism a lot as well,” he says. “So it hits home when someone like that is actually putting in effort and he really, really cares. You just want to do that. You want to carry the same sort of effort into doing that, wherever you are. You want to spread the word and you want to try and be the change and do the best you can.
“It’s just ridiculous, really. I’m not saying that I’ve dealt with half the things LeBron probably has, but in Australia growing up, being a college athlete and playing an old, White traditional sport like tennis, it hasn’t been easy. Social media is a killer for me, to be honest.
“That’s where you see it, you know, you don’t necessarily take it in, but subconsciously you do absorb everything and it’s not easy to block it out.
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“I probably don’t want to say some of these stories in an interview, but, just driving my car with my window open and seeing some guys yelling out racial slurs and everything like that. That’s a day-to-day thing that I have to deal with.
“It’s unfortunate because people just have this sort of hate towards people who they think to be successful and arrogant, when we’re really just trying to give back and try to be helpful and it’s tough. It’s tough to deal with.
“It’s not so easy, but all I can do – and all athletes can really do – is continue to move forward, try and help where we can and try and spread the word and maybe one day it will get through. But I’m not sure, it’s not so easy.”