McEnroe was serious all right – still is when he gets on court to play Jim Courier’s Senior tour – but he can look back with his customary pertinent perspective when you ask him about the young Australian who is gaining a world wide army of fans as well as some severe critics.
“Yes, I have a sense of what Nick is going through,” says McEnroe. “He’s different. He wants to do things his way and he doesn’t care what people think if he feels he’s right. I can relate to that.”
After his second round match against Juan Monaco which he won in straight sets, Kyrgios was asked in press conference if he was aware of how loudly he was swearing. “Yeah, I guess I’m aware of what I’m saying. I’m in pain and I’m playing a tennis match at Wimbledon, second round. A bit of stress out there.”
Then Kyrgios went on to reveal the same disdain for people who in sit in authority over him as McEnroe did while he was winning three Wimbledons and four US Opens. Asked about what happened when the umpire called him over, Kyrgios said, “I just thought he thought he was top dog in the chair really. He was telling me not to speak to him, all that stuff. Doesn’t matter really, you know.”
In other words, get out of my hair – yes, especially Nick’s hair – and let me get on with what I’m supposed to be doing out here, win a tennis match. In the zone, out there in the battle zone, neither McEnroe nor Kyrgios have any other thought except winning.
“I watched him in press conference and I empathized with what he was going through, having to answer some of those questions,” said McEnroe. “I had the same thing. It’s tough at that age.”
Kyrgios is twenty, very mature and worldly wise in some ways and very young in others. He’s learning on the job and he’s not making it easy for himself. His attitude and occasional flashes of rudeness do not go down well with the older generation of Australians, many of whom recognize and applaud the talent but do not like the way he is representing Australian tennis.
“He’s a provocative character and that’s fine,” says Wally Masur, a former Davis Cup player who now works in television. “But I just hope someone doesn’t take a pot shot at him in a bar some place. It’s going to happen unless he learns how to take it down a notch.”
Patrick Rafter, the former US Open champion who is now in charge of development for Tennis Australia, is a no nonsense sort of guy who will groom Kyrgios as a vital member of the Davis Cup squad as much as he is able but he won’t stand for too much backchat. Rafter has just cut Bernard Tomic’s funding because he was no longer prepared to deal with the player’s father and that should serve as a warning to all the exciting new generation of Aussies.
The message is clear: We love you but you have to remember you’re representing Australia. It will be different for Kyrgios on the ATP tour. It has been made plain to him that he is free to express himself as long as his behaviour stays within the bounds of decency and legality.
“We’re not going to be on Nick’s back all the time, telling him how to behave,” one senior ATP official told me. “To be honest, we need players like him, players who are colourful and create headlines. That’s what the tournament directors want – people who can sell tickets.”
Back in McEnroe’s time, he, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase played such thrilling tennis and often behaved so appallingly that sports fans who had never thought about watching a tennis match turned up in droves all over the world. It didn’t say much for human nature but it is a fact that a bit of outrageous behaviour does attract a crowd and once the Top 4 begin to lose their dominance, which will happen one day, there will be a desperate need to replace them with a larger than life personality.
The ATP will be there to guide Kyrgios and, if he is sensible, he will listen. But they will not lecture him and he will appreciate that. A long leash is required if this engaging character who stirs such a variety of emotions is going to fulfill his potential.