Nick Kyrgios is simultaneously an open book and an enigma. He says what he thinks and does the unthinkable. Sometimes that comes in the form of throwing a tantrum or berating the chair umpire. Other times it is raising funds for communities devastated by bushfires or becoming the pandemic voice of reason. To this day it is unclear whether he has a sizeable chip on his shoulder or genuinely does not give a toss.
A similar indecision can also be felt by the viewer, of wanting to both like and dislike him and flirting with both in equal measure. Love him or hate, though, one cannot help but watch him.
Kyrgios had missed all the warm-up events to his ninth Australian Open after problems with asthma and then coming down with Covid-19, which he said had him sleeping 17 hours a day. The Australian was underdone when he rolled into Melbourne on a private jet on Sunday ahead of this Tuesday-evening opener. Nobody knew how he would fare against Liam Broady, the British qualifier who has never before made the main draw of this grand slam and has not progressed past the second round in any other.
Unfortunately for the 28-year-old Broady and his supporters at home in Stockport, his debut was short-lived, ending in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 defeat in one hour and 54 minutes. For the local favourite up the other end, this potential banana skin of a match morphed into a warm-up for his round-two antagonist, Daniil Medvedev, who swept past Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen in straight sets. The Russian world No 2 was runner-up here last year and won the 2021 US Open, and yet this will mean little to Kyrgios, who beat him both times they played in 2019. He holds the same winning record over the world No 1, his arch-nemesis and recent “bromance” buddy, Novak Djokovic.
Such unpredictability is the essence of his personality, described by himself as “spontaneous” and “unorthodox”. It is the foundation of the public’s addiction to him, which was no more evident than on Tuesday night. John Cain Arena is the people’s court. It is also Kyrgios’s court, his haven for showboating shenanigans. Seemingly straightforward contests have gone very wrong for Kyrgios in the past, but when he’s on he is on, and by the time he had wrapped up the first set in 34 minutes he had served 10 aces to Broady’s none. At the end of proceedings there were 21. One whacked a very brave ball-boy on the hip.
Broady had his moments, too, including a leaping smash to help him win a first-set service game to love, and several more eye-catching moments thereafter. In his opening service game in the second, he rallied from 40-0 to deuce and survived three Kyrgios advantages only to cede the game anyway.
This was largely the story of the match – he hung in there admirably but ultimately fell short. Kyrgios won the next service game to love, sealing it with another shot through the legs. He did not even move his feet, just stuck out his tongue, gave it a wiggle and broke into a grin.
The early theatrics were not just of his own making. Broady walked on to the court to chants of “siu” and heard them again every time he went to serve. Midway through the second set he was about to release his serve toss when a spectator shouted “underarm, man”. He burst out laughing, Kyrgios did too, and then they were both standing there spluttering and smiling for a good 10 seconds. Before long Kyrgios was copping the “siu” treatment from the Cristiano Ronaldo enthusiasts. “Fucking every point,” he quipped back.
“I thought they were going to do it for 10 minutes,” he said afterwards. “They did it for two hours. I know I’ve got the crowd in the palm of my hand. Obviously Liam’s a great player, but his experience on that court, in that situation, when the crowd’s going nuts, he’s never experienced that before. That’s the reason why, at break points, I’m trying to get the crowd up and get him to feel the pressure.”
It was all in good spirit, which is effectively how he views his career. Playing tennis is a fun thing to do – when he feels like it. “I like to feel good and I like to just enjoy my life. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I play a bit of tennis on the side.”
That much is apparent in the 26-year-old’s rankings slide to world No 114. The 26-year-old now finds himself in the triple-digits for the first time since July 2014, when the then 144th-ranked teenager blew world No 1 Rafael Nadal off centre court en route to the Wimbledon quarter-finals and subsequently shot up to 66th.
The intervening seven and a half years have been a wild ride. Of brickbat and bluster, moral high grounds and meltdowns, and a generally untamed predilection for controversy.
“If I’m ranked 1,000 or 10 in the world everyone knows what I’m capable of on tour,” he said last week. “I’m not a player that hasn’t proven himself … I talk a lot, but I also have beaten a lot of players and I have won a lot of tournaments.
Tennis etiquette does not really apply to this particular player. Emotions are never suppressed and protocols not always adhered to. Even when Kyrgios is not talking, he is talking. Each triumphant fist pump, indignant glare and underarm serve is an open window into his state of mind. The swagger and the shoulder slumps are transparent. Every last bead of sweat that drips from his brow has something to say.
After the match, his actual words were of surprise. “The first couple of days [with Covid] I was bedridden, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team because the last week has been tough with the isolation. I was lucky enough to have a tennis court to just hit some serves.
“I’m just super happy to be here again. We’ve all had a tough couple of years, and to play in front of you guys, it was a lot of fun … this is my favourite court in the entire world.”