(CNN)Nick Kyrgios continues to delight and frustrate in equal measure. Tennis’ modern-day bad boy took on bitter rival Rafael Nadal in a heated second-round clash at Wimbledon Thursday and it was another classic in the Kyrgios canon.
There were stare downs, underarm serves, code violations and a deliberate forehand blast straight at Nadal’s chest.
The match, won by an ecstatic Nadal, was gripping and gladiatorial in equal measure. Not just for the level of play, but for the history between the two and the antics of the Australian.
Love him or hate him, Kyrgios is the stuff of water-cooler conversations.
So the simple question is — is Nick Kyrgios good for tennis? Is he a larrikin (Aussie slang for boisterous troublemaker) or liability?
Firstly, let’s not deny it. When Kyrgios plays, we all watch.
“He moves the needle,” said Roger Rasheed, who has been around professional tennis for decades as a TV analyst, coach and past member of the ATP board.
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In this age of Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, Kyrgios is right up the street of the younger population — which tennis is trying to attract, by the way.
They don’t necessarily want to dwell on forehands and backhands for hours, just like Kyrgios doesn’t have any interest in hitting those forehands and backhands for hours.
The “box office” tag often associated with Kyrgios is wholly appropriate. Even when he is not trying to amuse, he still does — like when he sneezed three times in a row in an incident that had everyone in hysterics Thursday.
Sitting on Centre Court, the yells of “Come on, Nick” or “Come on, Kyrgios” couldn’t be overlooked, and they seemed to come largely from that younger audience.
If he didn’t edge the match in terms of support, Kyrgios certainly wasn’t far off against one of tennis’ greatest ever players renowned and respected for his commitment and intensity.
Kyrgios went too far when he called chair umpire Damien Dumusois a “disgrace” for not cracking down on the time Nadal took between points, but he was correct in his assessment that the Frenchman was too lenient.
Nadal appeared to play on Kyrgios’ lingering beef about his slow play, be it waiting a fraction longer to leave his chair when the chair umpire called “time” or making the 24-year-old wait while he received serve.
Tennis authorities are trying to speed up the game, remember, which is why a shot clock is now regularly used at events around the world.
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Underarm or underhand?
Much was made about Kyrgios being spotted at a local watering hole Wednesday evening.
He admitted as much in his post-match press conference, and according to reports, Kyrgios was in a perfectly presentable condition when he left the pub.
But was this any way to prepare for a big match?
Put other athletes in his position and they’d be affectionately termed “one of the gang.”
And hey, even though he partied all week and went jet skiing before the final in Acapulco in March, Kyrgios still won the tournament. So what’s the problem?
When it comes to his actual tennis game, Kyrgios’ shot-making can be astoundingly good.
He has beaten Nadal three times, which tells you he’s not all flash and no substance.
The serve is one of the biggest ever in tennis and his backhand gives Nadal the same type of issues that Novak Djokovic’s does. Djokovic has been Nadal’s toughest ever opponent.
As for those underarm serves, many players — including Roger Federer — say there’s nothing wrong with it.
It offers the element of surprise, like the drop shot.
Indeed, think of an underarm serve as a drop shot to start the point.
With Nadal often standing miles behind the baseline to help his return game, it’s a viable option.
Kyrgios won both points when he used the underarm serve on Thursday, with the first classified an ace because Nadal didn’t touch the ball. Even Nadal smiled.
Good tactics, then.
In a few years the Big Three of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic will all be retired.
The networks, especially, will be looking for someone to pick up the (ratings) slack and Kyrgios is one of the main candidates.
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On the other hand, though entertaining, Kyrgios often goes too far. His list of indiscretions is lengthy and still open ended.
Hey, even the best of them have uttered bad language on court. Federer, in the 2009 US Open final against Juan Martin del Potro, for starters.
But that was a rare blemish from the Swiss master aimed at the chair umpire, while Kyrgios is a serial offender who has targeted umpires and fans with greater vitriol.
With microphones picking up anything and everything nowadays, that clearly isn’t the example to present to kids who often view athletes as role models and place them on the highest of pedestals.
Nor is throwing a chair on court, tanking (not trying) or sledging (trash talking), as Kyrgios did to Stan Wawrinka at the Canadian Masters in 2015. Tennis just doesn’t do that.
At a time when prize money is a hot topic on the men’s player council, would sponsors — who drive prize money — want to get involved with Kyrgios doing all that?
It’s not the image they’d want to project.
Nadal had it 100% correct when he said in February the Australian doesn’t respect opponents, the crowd or himself. Examples constantly bear that out.
His own time-wasting tactics Tuesday against compatriot Jordan Thompson — throwing himself to the ground at least twice after points ended — received little attention probably only because his sometime Davis Cup teammate didn’t make a fuss.
Putting in a 19-minute set as he did against Thompson in set four is something, sadly, we’ve come to expect from Kyrgios.
If he was on a basketball court — basketball is the sport he loves, not tennis — he’d never go through the motions.
Still, tennis is his job and he owes it to stakeholders to deliver a good shift.
Goodness knows, he’s earning enough to do so.
According to Britain’s four-time Wimbledon semi finalist Tim Henman, Kyrgios has the skill, if not the temperament currently, to reach the very top.
“Rafa is just phenomenal,” Henman explained to CNN. “His intensity, the quality, the level he plays day in day out.
“And that’s what I think a lot of people hope that Nick can apply himself to do because you can see the enormous tennis talent he has but physically and mentally, day in day out, he’s too inconsistent.”
Trying — and erring — on shot a between the legs on a big point against Thompson when the simpler option was to hit a routine forehand rubs it in the face of the opponent, like a footballer attempting a nutmeg with his side leading by three or four goals.
It’s not necessarily a good look.
And what of Kyrgios’ time at the pub Wednesday?
Tennis has moved on from the 1970s and 80s, when such a soiree wouldn’t have been as newsworthy.
Things are much more professional nowadays.
Having alcohol — if he did have some, and we don’t know — isn’t something you would see Nadal, Federer or others consume the evening before a match.
Not the hydration they’d be looking for.
At least Kyrgios was honest enough to admit post-match that he was currently too unprofessional to contend for a grand slam.
Those Kyrgios press conferences can be prickly, flippant, but often amusing affairs, too — cringe-making for the traditionalists, box-office for others. When it was put to him Nadal didn’t look too pleased with his shot into the Spaniard’s chest, he simply replied: “And?”
It seems like in every Kyrgios match, he crunches at least a couple of forehands and doesn’t care where they land.
One of these days, one of his misdirected rockets could hit an umpire, lines person or fan. One forehand almost hit a lines person Thursday, in fact.
Then the tale of Kyrgios would ascend to another, sad tier.
Five years after he announced himself to the tennis world by beating Nadal at Wimbledon, there’s still no real sign that Kyrgios is intent on being the professional that would see him turn the table and win multiple grand slams.
But is he good for tennis? Let the debate continue.