This year’s Australian Open forced tennis into an awkward position.
It was the first time since 1999 that both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were absent from a Grand Slam.
The ‘Big Three’ had been reduced to one and even Rafael Nadal was covered in an injury cloud, telling reporters earlier in the week that a rare foot condition left him fearing his career was over.
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Without Djokovic and Federer, the sport was made to look at the peripheries, at the future of what it could look like without the superstar trio – how it could market itself.
The answer had been there for nine years, when Nick Kyrgios came on the scene and turned pro in 2013, giving him a fresh take on the sport.
The Australian’s unconventional stance was not always easily accepted and remains a bone of contention within the tennis community to this day.
But instead of being criticized as another case of wasted talent, people finally seem to understand that Kyrgios is best valued for what he is – perfectly imperfect.
For Kyrgios it is a lesson from which the sport must learn.
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“I think tennis has done a really bad job of accepting personalities in the past,” he told reporters after he and doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis advanced to the quarter-finals.
“They’ve only launched three players in the last decade and now it’s caught up with them and so they’ve been trying to push some of the next-gen guys. Some are really exciting.
“I really like the two young Canadians (Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov), they can do very special things in the sport, but tennis has really struggled to embrace different personalities.”
Kyrgios isn’t just talking about himself either.
“Something about Thanasi when he plays singles glues me to the TV,” he added.
“Whether he wins or loses, it’s something and I think tennis should embrace it more.”
The Melbourne crowd certainly did, supporting Kyrgios before his singles campaign at the Australian Open was ended by Daniil Medvedev.
But even after Kyrgios dropped a grueling first set — and defeat seemed inevitable — the audience and viewers lingered.
That’s the appeal of the Kyrgios show, you just still don’t know what’s going to happen.
“You’re watching the game with me and Medvedev,” Kyrgios said.
“You couldn’t have more opposites in personalities, but the quality of tennis was at a pretty good level and it was fun. I think tennis has to push that a lot, otherwise it will be in trouble.”
It’s a point Kyrgios is passionate about, but doubles partner Kokkinakis sees a lot of value in that argument as well.
“We’re definitely different from you generic doubles,” he said.
“In the end, it’s entertaining. He’s a bit more showboaty than I am, but that’s just our personalities and I think we complement each other very well.
“We get along well off the pitch and the fans can see that on TV. It feels like a Davis Cup atmosphere. We sometimes have more people watching than other guys going deep into singles.”
Don’t you believe him? Kyrgios had prepared the numbers to back it up.
“We’re taking the game to a new level, not just on the double field,” he said.
“I saw that TV viewing figures increased by 45 percent. Let’s make this clear. People come to see him [Kokkinakis] because he is exciting. We need this for the sport, I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Both Kyrgios and Kokkinakis were eliminated relatively early in men’s singles, but are expecting a stunning rise to the top in doubles.
If ‘the Special Ks’ can continue their build-up to the doubles final, you’d be assured that this is the most watched program in Australian TV history.
The duo have already knocked down two seeded opponents – including the world’s No. 1 – and believe they have every chance for glory.
Kyrgios has noticed an important change in himself along the way.
“This is our best run ever at a Grand Slam,” he said.
“We’ve matured and matured, I’m sure. I’m going to do everything I can – recover, rest, train.”
“F***, listen to me bro,” Kyrgios laughed, realizing how different he sounds from his usual self.
“I’m ready to go,” he added.
“I definitely think we have a good chance of winning this.”
That has as much to do with Kyrgios’ doubles partner as it does with his new, mature approach to the sport.
“Usually I go deep in singles or we just lose a little focus in doubles when things don’t go the way we want, but I definitely feel different,” he said.
“I feel like a favorite because of the way he plays there, he’s clearly very confident in the month he’s had which is great to see. We’re locked in. It’s the best doubles we’ve played together.
“I know I’m in a different mindset. I do not know what happened. I am [maturing], f*** me to death. I feel different.
“In the past when I played doubles I felt like I didn’t do enough on the track and now I’m making more returns and trying to lead by example, but he also plays great. This is the best tennis I think I’ve been on court with him [for].”