MELBOURNE – Inasmuch as the Australian Open stands for the proposition that you can hold a two-week party and tack on a tennis tournament, you will not be surprised to learn that there was an INXS cover band on the grounds today. While the group blew through the hits, it could have doubled as a tribute to Nick Kyrgios. Devil Inside. New Sensation. Maybe above all Mystify, what with lyrics like “Eternally wild with the power, to make every moment come alive.”
Kyrgios is 21 now—young, but not a rookie—and he still mystifies. From match to match, he is utterly confounding. We’ve seen plenty of athletes who polarize, who cleave the public. Fan X hates Ray Lewis or Kobe Bryant or, more recently, Grayson Allen. Fan Y loves them. But there’s a consistency. You know what you’re getting. You then apply your value system and interpret accordingly.
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In the case of Kyrgios, he resists characterization. There are acts and dimensions to his personality that are indefensible. (Not least, the tanking that occasioned a recent suspension. You could also cite the shabby treatment he sometimes applies to his talent.) There are other acts and dimensions to his personality that are, indisputably, admirable. (Note his interaction with fans, especially younger ones. Note that he is the most high profile player to express any opinion on Donald Trump. Note—at age and in a line of work where monogamy isn’t necessarily a core value—his gushing affection for his girlfriend.)
Kyrgios confounds within tennis, too. Jim Courier terms him, “a wild horse doing it his way.” Craig Tiley, the head of Tennis Australia, settled here, “He does things that make him exciting.” Last weekend Roger Federer was asked about Kyrgios and offered something other than gushing praise. “He has got a big game, but he has to beat four, five amazing players. Can he do that right now? I'm not sure.” (Kyrgios’ rebuttal? “I played him once and beat him once.”)
Yet here’s a secret about Kyrgios: this ambivalence ultimately serves him—and tennis—quite well. The great virtue of sports is the unpredictability. Kyrgios is the antithesis of scripted. Is he the dazzling player who won his first match of the 2017 Australian Open in 82 minutes, blending shotmaking with defense, power with accuracy? Or is he the man-child who bows out at majors and claims that it’s not so bad because he doesn’t like tennis all that much? Is his disdain for the sport’s social conventions cooly subversive or punkishly antisocial? Is his refusal to get a proper coach, outside-the-box thinking or stupidity?
The chattering class talks about Kyrgios growing up. Will his emotional growth ever catch up his maturity? But getting answers here would demystify Kyrgios. Sometimes clarity removes the fun. He plays his next match Wednesday evening. As much as any other payer in the draw, fans will watch and fans will care.
• Serena Williams made her Melbourne debut today and recovered from a shaky start to take down Belinda Bencic in straight sets. That was a rough first rounder for Serena, playing a top-10 caliber player who had beaten her within the past months. And it doesn’t get much easier. Serena now gets Lucie Safarova.
• Awfully nice start to Karolina Pliskova’s 2017 Aussie Open campaign. The favorite in the eyes of many—including SI.com—blew past Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-2, 6-0. Starting with her decision to eat the fine and skip an event last week, she’s projected the message: “I’m here to win.”
• Big lost opportunity for Jared Donaldson. The Rhode Islander was 2-0 sets on Rogerio Dutra Silva before capitulating in five sets.
• The bad news for Reilly Opelka, the 7-foot American: he fell to David Goffin in five sets today. The good news: when you’re his size, his age (19) and get to 4-4 in the fifth against Goffin (11th-seed and the player most often compared to David Ferrer) you've answered many questions.
• Lots of buzzing about the Stan Wawrinka, ahem, nut job, against Martin Klizan on Monday. Cheap shot or accident? One point I heard repeatedly (including by one of you on Twitter) was that so many players in that defensive situation—starting with Monfils—play possum and then try to make a play.
If you are making a thread on matches I do not want to see, I think Federer-Gasquet belongs on the list. They played at Hopman Cup and Federer barely sweated. They have not had a competitive match in a while, including that Davis Cup blowout in France on clay. I think Isner-Cilic is too easy, since Isner belongs on this list vs. anyone. He is tough to watch. —Thomas G.
• Here’s an observation: for me, anyway, these “thanks-but-I’ll-pass” match-ups are few and far between on the women’s side. In fact, I’m struggling to find two WTA players that I affirmatively do not want to see face each other.
What do you make of the American contingent? Evidence that the USTA is finally getting its act together? —Jeff, New York
• Assume we’re talking about the men’s draw—where there are 14 Americans out on the dance floor—but perhaps not. What strikes me most is the low age. The youth speaks to improving player development. (Pat McEnroe comes in for credit here. A lot of these prospects germinated on his watch, to mix metaphors.)
The ogre would say: Jack Sock is as close as it gets to a contender; we would trade less quantity for more quantity. But between the low average age and the fact that so many (five) qualified—i.e. earned it—rather than skated on a wild card or an inflated ranking….there’s considerable grounds for optimism.
As I write this, there are some intriguing match-ups. Michael Mmoh versus Giles Simon. Francis Tiafoe vs. Kukushkin. Reilly Opelka against David Goffin. Ernesto Escobedo—the forgotten man of the bunch—might get Ferrer in round two. By week’s end, we’ll have a better sense of these guys.
Note that if Tommy Haas had followed through on his one-time talk of playing for the U.S., the number would have been even higher. Then, again, that would have tanked the average age.
Kudos to Gilles Muller for finally winning a tournament. Always a nice story when a veteran pro finally sees success after years of hard work (and in his case injuries). He may lose to Fritz today but before that happens, I wanted to ask: Do you have a good Muller story? —Cainim, still in Minnesota
• Still in Minnesota? It’s a lovely state, even in January. We should all be so lucky. Let’s pause to racket clap Gilles Muller who won his first tile at age 33. Think it meant much to him? Watch this.Remember, this is a guy who reached his first final in 2004.
Just read seed reports. Tommy Haas is in the draw? I didn't even know he was still active. —JR, Portland
• The International Tennis Federation announced today that UNIQLO has extended its sponsorship of the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour for an additional five years through 2021. The agreement also sees UNIQLO continue its title sponsorship of the year-end UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters, and become an official partner of the BNP Paribas World Team Cup and title sponsor of the Wheelchair Tennis Rankings
• Pete H. of Wisconsin has LLS: Kateryna Kozlova and Carly Gullikson.