After taking out the world No. 1 at the U.S. Open on Sunday night, Nick Kyrgios gave the sort of speech you’d find in the last 10 minutes of a weepy sports film.
“What a place to do it. Packed house in New York. I’m extremely blessed,” Kyrgios said. “I’m really glad I’m able to show you guys the work and dedication, finally. It took me 27 years.”
Working in full Oprah mode, on-court host Patrick McEnroe said, “I think we’re all glad.” The crowd purred in agreement.
You could feel Kyrgios’s redemption arc locking closed. We’ve all grown so much and now our healing is nearly complete.
What did Kyrgios actually do in the match? The usual Kyrgios stuff.
He repeatedly berated the umpire because he felt the serve clock was too fast (Note: It’s a clock. It goes one speed). He profanely abused the supporters in his own box (though this time he didn’t spit at them).
The Australian chattered loudly through the service games of his opponent, Daniil Medvedev. The Russian is not shy when it comes to registering his own complaints. After Kyrgios was finished chirping the umpire about the clock, Medvedev would chirp about Kyrgios.
One major outrage was avoided. After a midmatch miss, Kyrgios angrily swiped a bouncing ball toward the hoardings behind him. It sailed a bit. Had it floated a foot or so higher, it would have hit a spectator in the head.
Was it his worst recent display? No, that would be driving Stefanos Tsitsipas over the edge at Wimbledon and then pretending innocence, but it would be big news if anyone else did it.
Nothing about Kyrgios has changed, except one thing – he’s winning. He won Sunday’s match 7-6 (11), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Kyrgios is having a great couple of months on the tennis court. Having never before made it past the fourth singles round in any major, he’s been to the Wimbledon final and is on his way to the U.S. Open quarter-final. He’ll face Karen Khachanov on Tuesday.
It was clear on Sunday that he is everyone’s new crush at Arthur Ashe Stadium. As Kyrgios says, at 27, it looks as though he’s finally figured it out.
What he’s figured out isn’t how to control his temper, or get a hold of himself, or avoid indulging his most petulant impulses. What he’s figured out is that if you are one of life’s winners, all your red flags are magically transformed into charming eccentricities.
Kyrgios is in the midst of proving an important, immutable truth about celebrity – as long as someone is winning, they can do what they like and the crowd will applaud them for it.
They will come to you after the winning match, much of which you spent yelling at people who can’t yell back, and ask questions like, “Is part of the process just liking yourself?”
And then you get to straight-facedly answer, “Obviously, winning helps.”
No, it’s doing a lot more than helping. Winning does all the work. Winning is up an hour before you every morning, returning e-mails while walking on an inclined treadmill.
If Kyrgios wasn’t winning, no one would care. They’d boo when he did the things he does, and snicker at him afterward. We know that because that’s how they used to treat him in New York when he was flaming out on some side court in the first round.
Kyrgios’s magic is that he gets that. He speaks about himself in grandiose terms because that’s what you’d do, too, if people were out in public seriously asking you questions about how much you like yourself.
But he seems to have an excellent grasp of the fact that people prefer winners. That’s why he decided to become one.
“It’s easier to wake up, obviously, when things are going well,” Kyrgios said. “I feel like there’s not as much negative things being said about me. I just wanted to turn the narrative around. That’s basically it.” So he did.
What’s not talked about as much is that this come-to-Jesus moment has not been accompanied by any noticeable change in approach. If one single thing goes wrong for him, Kyrgios’s first instinct is to start chucking his toys out of the crib. It is not normal to be spitting at people who are there to support you, as Kyrgios did last week. But now it’s okay.
“Speaking of your team, sometimes you give them a little of the business …” McEnroe said to Kyrgios after Sunday’s win, in the tone of, “You scamp, you.” Boys will be boys and all that.
Kyrgios gets away with it because as demented as he can seem on the court, he is fragile and introspective off it. Most pros are a type, while Kyrgios is a person. Not necessarily the sort of person you want to go halfsies on an apartment with, but a person nonetheless. Authenticity remains a great marketing strategy.
But nothing beats a naughty winner. People loved Jimmy Conners, John McEnroe and even Ilie Nastase – who was a real piece of work – for being good at tennis and bad at basic manners.
Like all love, it’s complicated. Novak Djokovic may be the best player of all time, but few people feel affection for him because he so transparently wants to be liked. Kyrgios could care less about anyone’s feelings and people are swooning in the stands.
By the end of Sunday night, Kyrgios had worked himself up into quite a mood. As his news conference went on, he grew less and less careful.
“Three more matches and then we never have to play tennis again,” he crowed near the end, in a sort of joking-but-not-joking way.
Careful. This new system Kyrgios has stumbled on only works if he keeps being great at sports. As soon as he stops, he’s just another ill-tempered nobody behaving badly in company.
You think how you get treated when you win instead of losing is a shock? Wait’ll you see how it works the opposite way around.