MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Nick Kyrgios was furious. Borna Coric had just broken him in their fourth-round clash on Tuesday in the Grandstand at the Miami Open. Coric still trailed, 4-6, 4-2, but now he was back into the match.
Kyrgios hurled his racket headfirst into the blue-gray hardcourt. The top splintered with a crack like a rifle shot — or a Kyrgios forehand — and the racket bounced away. The crowd reacted predictably, with a mixture of awe and disapproval. Kyrgios went after the racket and repeated the violent gesture. With the crowd roaring now, he snatched it up and wound up to hurl it again — only to stop in mid-motion.
Kyrgios broke into a broad grin. He looked at the spectators in the towering bleachers and held the mangled racket forward, offering it. Everyone wanted it. Kyrgios finally flipped it to a young man in a Boston Celtics Kyrie Irving jersey.
Assessed a point penalty, Kyrgios feigned innocence and said to chair umpire Gianluca Moscarella, “I was just folding it up for him.”
Welcome to the world of Nick Kyrgios, who is equal parts electric shot-maker, punk, riveting entertainer, charlatan. Some would like to see him banished to a deserted island that has no tennis courts. Others think he’d make a good rodeo clown. On the court, he’s a magnet and all those thousands of eyeballs are just steel shavings. People who know about such things say the 23-year-old will win a Grand Slam, but they’ve said that for a long time and it hasn’t happened yet.
Tuesday’s match, like so many other Kyrgios matches, started pretty and ended ugly. The No. 11-seeded Coric — a square-jawed Croatian whose disciplined game, work ethic and dignified demeanor cast him as a kind of anti-Kyrgios — won it 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in an hour and 56 minutes of the sublime as well as the ridiculous.
Whatever his faults, Kyrgios is generally honest. He said afterward: “Honestly, today, a more disciplined player just won. He’s an unbelievable competitor. I just lost concentration. Kind of got a little bored in the second set, like my concentration just started veering off.”
The symptoms of that lapse? “I started hitting, like, a [Roger] Federer serve and stuff,” Kyrgios said. “I just lost a bit of concentration. [Coric is] a good enough player to just capitalize. It’s a tough loss. I just have to be better mentally. Simple as that.”
That’s a song we’ve all heard before. It’s the national anthem of a mental landscape we’ll call Kyrgiostan (or Nick’s World). It’s a place where all the familiar rules that govern tennis, from matters of etiquette to the mechanics and physics of the game, are suspended — or sometimes merely twisted, in ways both good and bad.
If Kyrgios, who’s ranked No. 33 in the world but steadily losing ground to some of his generational rivals, were to draw up a bucket list of the things he might want to accomplish in tennis it might read like this:
Convince the world there’s nothing wrong with tossing in a serve underarm now and then.
Play a match without ever running. Or bending my knees.
Win a match without ever hitting a single forehand or backhand (drop shots allowed).
Alienate all my fans.
Convert all my critics.
Hit a shot that Roger Federer can’t. (Never mind, I already do that.)
Throw down a slam dunk in an NBA game. (I love the NBA.)
Kyrgios may be on his way to accomplishing his first goal. In his previous match, he threw in at least two underarm serves, winning a set with one of them. Against Coric, the closest he came was a fake that got Coric started to the net before he recognized the ruse and retreated.
First and foremost, Kyrgios is a button-pusher. And in the underarm serve he found a terrific button to push right within the confines of the game — and it’s legal to boot. But does anyone doubt that were Federer or Rafael Nadal inclined to experiment with the underarm serve, their peers would soon be rushing to try it themselves?
Some of those other conceivable ambitions might be further out of reach, yet Kyrgios seems intent on them. Right from the get-go against Coric, he wore that disgruntled expression that asks, “What am I doing here?” He shuffled along indolently between points, as if he hates walking, never mind running. He took monstrous cuts that yielded shots of remarkable velocity. When he wasn’t chasing balls, he stood to receive serve like a guy waiting for a bus.
It also wouldn’t be a Kygrios match without a few ‘tweeners, and he hit one Tuesday that may have set a new standard. A point-blank exchange at the net appeared ended when Coric bunted the ball past Kyrgios at a sharp crosscourt angle. But in a burst of startling energy, Kyrgios caught up just before the ball took a second bounce, and, his back to the umpire’s chair, hit the ball so that it barely cleared the net yet still landed in the court, out of Coric’s reach.
Kyrgios produces so few conventional shots that it makes you wonder where all those years of early training went. Kyrgios was identified as a big talent at an early age. Nobody like that escapes endless hours of drilling. The first job of a coach is to teach good form and stroke discipline. But Kyrgios shows almost no sign of such training. How, when and why did he go rogue, and get so inventive?
Kyrgios had no good answer to that question. In fact, he bridled and grew sullen in the post-match news conference when it was put to him. Then he turned the tables slightly when he pointed out that everyone had a different style. “It’s a talent in and of itself for Coric to come in here every day and do everything to an absolute and be professional and work hard,” Kyrgios said. “I don’t have that. I don’t have that. He’s got that. Like, we’re all just different.”
Manners aside, the most serious complaint against Kyrgios’ entire routine — and it seems to be evolving into just that, a shtick — is that his antics overshadow his opponent. He shows his opponents scant respect. In Tuesday’s match, he jabbered with fans, smacked some heroically silly shots in additional to a bunch of dazzling ones, and lost it in a way that satisfied no one — thereby dimming the luster of Coric’s win.
Following a double-fault that gave Coric an ad point at 2-4 in the final set, Kyrgios dropped an audible F-bomb as he lined up to serve. Moscarella immediately dropped a point-penalty bomb on Kyrgios, ending the game.
“I’m playing for two hours and 20 minutes (Kyrgiostan has its own time zone),” Kyrgios said afterward, “and a guy yells at me, like, ‘Play some tennis.’ I’m not going to take it. So I said, F-you, to him. Probably not needed, but at that time, like, when you’re competing and in the heat of the moment, it’s probably not what you want to hear.”
Coric won the next four points, punctuating his performance with an ace.
Unlike some of his ATP peers, Coric was unconcerned about having to live in Kyrgiostan for some two hours — an enlightened attitude no doubt made more palatable by the fact that Kyrgios undermines himself as much as anyone with his antics. Coric also understands that not all players take such a charitable view. They don’t care that Kyrgios uses his talent like a get-out-of-jail card.
“Some players do [feel disrespected],” Coric said. “I understand that. It can be very frustrating, I agree. He is getting the attention because he’s making the shots, which are unbelievable. If I could play like that, I would get the same attention.”
Immediately after the match, Kyrgios sat staring at Moscarella, slowly and soundlessly applauding him, the man who had the nerve to enforce the rules and penalize him. The man who dared, in Kyrgios’ mind, to ruin the match. But finally Kyrgios got up and began tossing articles of clothing, towels, sweatbands and even water bottles to fans, all of them apparently dying to get hold of them.
As Kyrgios left the court, he fist-bumped Coric. It was the end of another day in Kyrgiostan.