opinion

This is what's really going on with Nick Kyrgios.

Last night, I watched as 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios lost in the second round of the Australian Open to Italian Andreas Seppi.

Well, he didn’t just lose. Kyrgios held a two-set lead, before being aggravated by an ongoing knee injury.

“I didn’t sign up for this bullshit,” he said, eliciting a code violation that marked the beginning of the end for the world number 13.

With the score tied at 3-3 in the third set, Kyrgios threatened to break his racket, attracting yet another violation. His opponent, the world number 89, seemed unphased.

He reads like a contradiction. Image via Getty.

In what has been described as a "baffling loss", Kyrgios appeared to oscillate between throwing the match, and desperately trying to turn it around.

And then came the press conference.

As Tyson Otto argued for News Corp, "In one sentence he says he is bummed for his family. The next sentence he says he’s not beating himself up." He blamed his body and then his mental frailties. To many, it read like a contradiction.

This morning, the headlines have emerged: "Nick Kyrgios needs to grow up or get out", "Nick Kyrgios’ dirty little secret laid bare". Meanwhile, former player John McEnroe — infamous for his fierce temper — labelled Kyrgios' lack of effort a "black eye for the sport".

Yet I feel I had my eyes on a very different man.

Unequivocally, Kyrgios' behaviour was unacceptable. It was unsportsmanlike. As a spectator, it was disappointing. But what I saw was a man in pain.

This is a man in pain. Image: Australian Open TV
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I spoke to one of Australia's leading sports psychologists, Jeff Bond, who spent 22 years with the Australian Institute of Sport, and is best known for his work with Pat Cash and the national swim team.

Although he has not worked directly with Kyrgios, Bond had a number of valuable insights into the psychology of tennis.

"All of the indications suggest he is quite conflicted about, not just about tennis, but I think conflicted about where he's at in his life," Bond told Mamamia. 

"I don't think he's settled. I don't think he's found what it is he loves about tennis."

He explained that every sport has its sweet spot, and it's what brings players back, game after game. Some put up with the "sacrifices and the physical punishment" because they love to compete. Others because they love the feeling of hitting a ball off the centre of their racket and knowing it's a great shot.

Mamamia Out Loud discusses the curious case of Nick Kyrgios. Post continues below. 

"And I think the platform isn't incredibly stable. So we see patches of brilliance followed by patches of, you know, really poor performance and inappropriate behaviour," he added.

Of course, Kyrgios isn't the first tennis player to exhibit a fiery temper, or to be accused of throwing a match.

Bond explained that, in a lot of ways, tennis is unique. "It's an extremely individual sport," he said. "And there aren't too many other sports where you're ego is on display and under scrutiny all of the time when you're out there."

"At the end of the day, if you played badly, you played badly. And that knocks the ego around a little bit."

When I spoke to Bond during the Rio Olympics, he reflected at the time: "Most elite athletes at that level have a significant proportion of their self-belief tied up in their sport... some feel that they don't exist outside their sport and that's a very dangerous place to be."

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I can't help but think this might be the case for Kyrgios.

As for allegedly throwing the game, Bond explained this is often an act of self protection. In the past, he has worked with tennis players who get to the point where they simply don't want to be out there anymore.

"I can understand why they do it, I don't think it's acceptable from an audience perspective or a tournament organisers perspective," he said.

Enough said @ordnry_jon #Melbourne

A photo posted by Nicholas Kyrgios (@k1ngkyrg1os) on

Bond understands the resentment, and is reluctant to use Kyrgios' age as an excuse.

"There is a lot of pressure and expectation surrounding Nick Kygrios. I mean he's the golden haired boy for Australian tennis.

"I think the people who are pretty quick to judge him are the ones who are desperate for a champion to pop up. And they see the level of talent and they see what's possible and they get glimpses of it but they don't see it consistently and they get really disappointed."

Bond was unimpressed with the booing crowd, and said judging from Kygrios' body language and response in the press conference, it "cut him pretty deep".

As glamorous as the game might appear, with a lot of money at stake and travel, Bond was quick to point out that's not the reality.

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"He needs to take a bit of a break from the game I reckon. A proper break," Bond said. He suggested Kygrios needs to rediscover why he loves tennis.

Bond's insight was a far cry from Otto's aforementioned op-ed published by News Corp, which argued Kyrgios "should have been aching" and immaturity or fear are invalid excuses, when ultimately "he's just bloody lazy".

As critical as the mainstream media has been at his behaviour during the press conference, the spectacle itself is flawed. Do we publicly interview a teacher after a particularly disastrous lesson? Or a surgeon after they have lost a patient?

Last night, Kyrgios was all of us at our worst.

We berate him when he loses his temper, we berate him when he doesn't care enough. We berate him when he's unsportsmanlike in the face of defeat, and we most definitely berate him when he doesn't win or play well enough.

His angry outbursts aren't "bratty". They're a signifier of pain. A symptom of a culture that values sport above just about everything else. Of a young man who has dedicated his life to this sport - who feels as though he is nothing without a win.

If we interpret Kyrgios as a beast, we must at the very least acknowledge that he is a beast we have created.

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