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The turning point for Nick Kyrgios came when no one was watching.

One year ago, almost to the day, former world number one John McEnroe referred to 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios as a “black eye for the sport.”

In the second round of last year’s Australian Open, Kyrgios was up in the first two sets against Andrea Seppi. But, midway through the third set, everything fell apart.

Aggravated by injury, Kyrgios elicited a code violation after yelling, “I didn’t sign up for this bullshit.” As the match progressed, he appeared increasingly uninterested, before eventually losing a round many believed he should have won.

As the year went on, the media worked hard to construct an image of a “tennis brat,” publishing pictures of Kyrgios out clubbing until 3am, only hours after pulling out of Wimbledon two sets into his first match.

“If you can be out at a nightclub you can play Wimbledon,” sports reporter Mark Beretta said at the time, which – to be clear – is not at all a true fact.

The jury had ruled. Kyrgios was entitled. Selfish. A waste of talent. A young man whose attitude and unsportsmanlike behaviour were frankly unforgiveable.

There was, of course, another way to read it.

Could he have been a man who was sad? All one had to do was tune into a postmatch press conference for a minute or two, to see his face oscillate between anguish and apathy. The angry toss of a tennis racquet looked a lot like a cry for help, from a man who did not know who he was without one in his hand.

LISTEN: Why aren’t we looking our for these young men who clearly are not okay? We discuss on Mamamia Out Loud. 

We expect sadness or anxiety to manifest itself in tears, but often it doesn’t. And rather than approach him with sympathy, we piled-on, yelling at him to get better.

And then, while no one was watching, something changed.

In September last year, Kyrgios wrote for Player’s Voice.

“I am not the person professional tennis needs me to be. That’s the truth,” he began. “There is a constant tug-of-war between the competitor within me wanting to win, win, win and the human in me wanting to live a normal life with my family away from the public glare.”

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Two years prior, his grandmother, the woman who raised him while his mother provided for the family, passed away.

“We were incredibly close. We spent hours and hours and hours together. We even slept in the same bunk bed,” he shared.

“I didn’t get to spend the time with her I wanted to and tennis was the reason for that. It kept me away from her. It’s something that still gnaws away at me.

“If I’m honest, I’d say I haven’t committed to tennis the way the game needs me to since she died.”

Kyrgios even bears a tattoo that reads ’74’ – the age his grandmother was when she died.

He writes in the piece that as exciting as tennis is, “it can feel empty,” and with that realisation came the establishment of the NK Foundation, a charity for underprivileged young people.

And that is, at least in part, where Kyrgios found his purpose.

On Sunday night, after he lost to world number three Grigor Dimitrov, Kyrgios walked right up to the net and embraced him.

“Believe,” the 22-year-old said, later reflecting that he felt Dimitrov lacks self-belief, and if he overcomes that, he can go all the way.

Lleyton Hewitt said, “It was respect by both players shown at the net… I know for a fact they have amazing respect for each other out there, both on and off the tennis court.”

The question for Kyrgios has never been skill, but rather temperament. And on Sunday night, at Rod Laver arena, he proved he was on the way to overcoming his greatest weakness.

The tale of Nick Kyrgios will go down as one of redemption, not unlike his forefathers; Hewitt among them. What we learned from his performance at this Australian Open, was the power of self-reflection and growth. And when you acknowledge your faults, and work on them, people ultimately respect you for it.

Australia will not hold Kyrgios’ past against him. We’re both too sportsmad, and too forgetful to do so. But what Kyrgios did at just 22 was brave. He did not curl up in a corner, cry ‘woe is me’, and ditch the sport he couldn’t quite conquer. He did some soul-searching and came out on top.

There’s a few other young tennis players that could certainly learn from Kyrgios’ example.

And in fact, it’s probably for the best he lost, because defeat is the greatest test of character.

Kyrgios put it best in the insightful piece he wrote four-or-so months ago.

“I’m trying to get better,” he said.

And what more can we ask of anyone?

You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here. 

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