MELBOURNE—On Sunday night, the tennis classroom officially known as Rod Laver Arena witnessed two students furiously scribbling in their notebooks as each issued one question after another. Between them, they would strike 140 winners over the course of nearly three-and-a-half hours. In the end, Grigor Dimitrov had come up with just enough answers to move into the quarterfinals of the Australian Open for the second year in a row, beating Nick Kyrgios 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (4).
“Great atmosphere tonight,” said Dimitrov. “Nice to play on such good conditions. The court played nice. There was no wind. It was not hot. It was not cold. It was just a great match for tennis tonight.”
Dimitrov was the diligent one, the upstanding lad who his entire life had put in time at the library. Like many a devoted student, Dimitrov’s education began in mimicry, devouring no less than the works of the great Roger Federer. Dimitrov had also availed himself of many advisors, in the past working with longstanding coach Roger Rasheed. Now he was with Dani Valliverdu, whose pedigree was ensured by dint of toil with Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych. One imagined that Dimitrov’s papers would be typed impeccably. A sparkling number versus Kyrgios: 64 winners to just 27 unforced errors, nicely over the desired two-to-one ratio.
Kyrgios was the talent, the kid with the goofy hairdo who’d aced (unavoidable pun) an exam that got him into the honors program. Versus Dimitrov, he would rattle off 36 untouchable serves.
But the whole world knew that Kyrgios’ work habits were ocassionally deplorable. It has been particularly disconcerting to see Kygrios enter a venue like the court named for the great Laver—Rod sitting just behind the court—and conduct himself with such anger, contempt, world-weariness. In 20 years of world-class tennis, Laver had likely not behaved as negatively than Kyrgios typically did in the course of a single tournament.
Naturally, Kyrgios did not have a coach, a decision which in some ways is a throwback to the days when Laver and his mates had no use for personal coaches (though as amateurs they did come under the heavy hand of their Davis Cup honcho, Harry Hopman). Look at it from a contemporary lens, though, and it’s yet another case of Kyrgios failing to avail himself of the many resources available to a multi-millionaire. But to him, it’s the way he must go. Said Kyrgios of his desire for freedom, “I feel that's one side that I love. Kind of doing things on my own terms . . . I was in a very structured environment when I was young and I didn't like it. I guess I have just now gone to the other extreme.”
Oh, the burdens of talent, of expectation, of Australia and its set of exemplary tennis values that so shackle and don’t understand the expressive Mr. Kyrgios. Oh Nick, you are such a guilty pleasure, you of the toxic emotions and the remarkably eclectic, brilliant tennis only you can play. Your type is rare, but familiar. Your ancestors include Ilie Nastase, the hot-headed, dazzling Romanian who starred in the ‘70s, and, more recently, Marat Safin, that volatile Russian who won this title in 2005 and often competed as if enduring a root canal.
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