Human highlight reel and budding tennis superstar Nick Kyrgios is no stranger to flash. He seeks it. He embraces it. He lives it. Anytime there’s even the most remote possibility of getting tennis Twitter abuzz with tweeners, jumpshots and/or incorrigible behavior, the 21-year-old makes the most of the opportunity, as he did with this Kyrgiosian (it’s gonna be a thing) winner in a 6-4, 6-7 (9), 6-3 victory in Thursday’s quarterfinal match at the Miami Open against another young superstar, Germany’s Sascha Zverev.
The pearl-clutching tennis purists, and there are still a few, get on the high horse when Kyrgios pulls stuff like this. “Won’t someone please think of the children?” (Though when Roger Federer does it, it’s magical.) Enough. The flashiness and showmanship — and even the temper — are great for the sport. The Aussie’s antics give a face and a personality to the game’s future, which is especially important given that the sobering reality of life without the Big Three marches ever closer.
And, allow me to put on my armchair shrink hat, I get the feeling that Kyrgios needs, or at least thrives on, those occasional doses of flair. He’s kept his head right this season (if not for a bout of the stomach flu at Indian Wells, he could be hovering just outside the top 10) and if hitting a jump backhand slice, rifle forehand, completely unnecessary flat-footed tweener and then a lob winner that clips the baseline (a progression that happened in Thursday’s match) is a way to help his on-court headspace then so be it. Some players thrive on the drama, even if that happens to include an ill-advised attempt at a tweener while down set point.
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It’s one thing to be lukewarm, or even cold, to Kyrgios. He’s been immature, lewd and a tennis roller coaster, who alternately looks like he’s going to make good on all the big predictions (the smart money is on him to become the next No. 1 not named Roger, Rafael, Novak or Andy) or flame out in a blaze of anger and pomade.
He’s a walking contradiction. At last year’s French Open he yelled at a ballboy for not bringing his towel fast enough, receiving a code violation. On Monday, he made this kid’s month.
He’s curt with the press and then can be open and funny. He’ll yell at a chair umpire for giving him a violation and then, as he did on Thursday (he put on quite a show), he’ll sarcastically, but non-threateningly, mutter that Rafael Nadal would never get assessed that violation while proceeding to mimic Rafa’s idiosyncratic way of tucking his hair behind his ear.
And then there was this move from Thursday, when he encouraged Zverev to challenge a call that went his own way, about an hour before challenging a call that he clearly was not allowed to. After the game, he shouted at the line judge who missed the call that led to the controversy. It’s the mystery of Kyrgios and, if not for the late-career renaissance of Federer and Venus Williams, it’d be the greatest thing going in tennis.
Kyrgios and Federer play in Friday night’s semifinal. They were set to meet in the quarters at Indian Wells two weeks ago but Kyrgios came down with a stomach bug that forced him to withdraw. At this exact moment, he and Federer are playing the best tennis in the world. Fireworks are guaranteed.