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PRESS CONFERENCE: Nick Kyrgios, after falling short in the Wimbledon final

In the waning moments before the men’s Wimbledon final on Sunday, broadcast commentator John McEnroe, ruminating on the long-awaited, first-time Grand Slam finalist Nick Kygrios, said: “I don’t even know the last time I was so excited about a match, and not even knowing what I want to see. If someone is looking from up above, we need Nick Kyrgios in this sport for a couple of years.”

Those wanting to see a hot mess of a match, or either an embarrassing beatdown—or triumphant elevation—of Kyrgios, were disappointed. Over the ensuing four hours, Kyrgios achieved the major breakthrough predicted for him by McEnroe and many others for the better part of a decade. The 27-year old Aussie hellion drove top seed Novak Djokovic to the absolute limit before the decorated Grand Slam champion subdued him in four compelling sets.

Yet the credibility Kyrgios earned at Wimbledon does not eliminate the question McEnroe broached. It’s the same one that has hovered, macro and micro, over Kyrgios’ entire tumultuous career: What will the most outrageous, controversial disruptor in tennis do next?

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“I was obviously super excited to be here,” Kyrgios said of this year’s Wimbledon event. “I had some high hopes, but I've never felt, to be honest, good. I just felt so much pressure. There's so much, like, anxiety, pressure to do things or achieve things.”

“I was obviously super excited to be here,” Kyrgios said of this year’s Wimbledon event. “I had some high hopes, but I've never felt, to be honest, good. I just felt so much pressure. There's so much, like, anxiety, pressure to do things or achieve things.”

It’s impossible to draw conclusions about that, no matter how inspirational Kyrgios’ penetration to the elite level of the game appears. His actions and words during the Wimbledon fortnight demonstrated—once again, albeit with the best result yet—that the coarse Aussie is a conflicted bundle of contradictions. He’s still the swaggering, talented underachiever who arrogantly disdains a sport whose luminaries, led by Djokovic himself, fawn all over him. At the same time, he’s a disgruntled self-saboteur who feels underappreciated and whines—yes, whines—about our collective failure to show him an appropriate level of respect.

Following their hotly contested, animosity-laden third-round clash, Stefanos Tsitsipas was so incensed by Kyrgios’ antics and the familiar, orchestrated chaos he manufactured that the Greek spared no words. “He bullies the opponents,” Tsitsipas said. “He was probably a bully at school himself. I don't like bullies. I don't like people that put other people down.”

Kyrgios responded with a sneering appraisal of Tsitsipas, describing the popular young star as “soft.” He added, “When I’m back home and you see who I’m competing with on the basketball court—these guys are dogs. The people I’m playing at Wimbledon, they’re not—he’s that soft, to come in here and say I bullied him, that’s just soft.”

Kyrgios would go on to have a spectacular, potentially career-altering tournament, aided in no small measure to the absence of some of the top names in tennis, including 2021 runner-up and title contender Matteo Berrettini (he withdrew after contracting Covid). Yet in the end, faced with the opportunity to beat Djokovic and claim that long awaited first Grand Slam title, it was Kyrgios who came up “soft.”

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Kyrgios failed, despite having served like a demon for most of the match, to hold a 40-0 lead at 4-4 in the third set. Djokovic broke him in that game, then held to take the critical set. Then, in the deciding fourth-set tiebreaker, Kyrgios collapsed. It was not exactly a shocking development, given the quality of the opposition and Kyrgios’ history of surly inattentiveness. He fell behind by a 6-1 deficit, sealing his own fate.

Call it karmic retribution. If that seems harsh, remember who we’re talking about. A 27-year-old braggart who has made an exceptionally fine living out of abusing officials and peers while never having won a Grand Slam title.

Kyrgios was 11-2 on grass courts going into the final (not counting pre-match walkovers), which included his appearance in three tune-up events—the most prep he’s ever done for Wimbledon. At the big show, he barely survived his first-round match with 219th-ranked wild card Paul Jubb, then unloaded to the press about “disrespectful” fans (he spat toward one the moment after he clinched the match), the eyesight of elderly officials, and having to deal with “hate and negativity.”

His second round, a win over Filip Krajinovic, transpired without notable incident, but Kygrios could not resist rubbing the noses of the media in it. He characterized the smooth win as, “A reminder to put you (the media) all back in your place. . .I just wanted to, I don't know, just prove to people that, like, I'm really good. I feel like I just don't have the respect sometimes, you know?”

Here’s an uncomfortable question Kyrgios needs to ask himself: How often do people who deserve respect complain about not getting it?

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This nagging problem for Kyrgios was addressed in his next match and first real test, the debacle with Tsitsipas. Kyrgios emerged from that one somewhat chastened, for he neither created a ruckus nor aired familiar grievances during a surprisingly competitive, five-set, fourth-round win over Brandon Nakashima. Kyrgios’ tune changed after that one.

“Now to sit here, quarterfinals of Wimbledon, feeling good, feeling composed, feeling mature, having that around me, I'm extremely blessed.” Kyrgios said, “I feel like I'm just comfortable in my own skin.”

Kyrgios, ranked No. 40 during Wimbledon, had other, more practical reasons to feel at ease. With so many of the usual second-week suspects injured, beaten or banned Kyrgios cruised past No. 43-ranked Cristian Garin in the quarterfinals. The average ranking of his first five opponents: 70.8

Rafael Nadal punched Kyrgios’ ticket to the final when he withdrew from Wimbledon with injury before their semifinal. Kyrgios said that this twist in the plot put him on edge, saying, “I feel like I'm just a reckless ball of energy.” The free pass enabled Kyrgios to store that energy and expend it profitably in the high-quality final.

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Those who worship at the altar of Kyrgios’ indisputable talent fervently hope that he has turned a corner at Wimbledon. They would love for him to draw motivation and inspiration from this experience. Djokovic spoke for all the friends of Kyrgios when he proclaimed, during the trophy presentation ceremonies, “Nick, you’ll be back. Not just to Wimbledon, but to the finals.”

Maybe, maybe not.

When Sue Barker, Wimbledon’s official interviewer, asked Kyrgios if playing the final whetted his appetite to return for more of the same, Kyrgios deflected to how exhausting the whole process had been, how much he and his entire team needed a vacation. He appeared more put out by his effort than proud of its result.

“Maybe one day I’ll be here again,” he said. “But I don’t know about that.”

It was an ungrateful, tasteless thing to say, but not out or character. Kyrgios also said, in his post-match presser, “I'm not supposed to be a Wimbledon finalist, like where I'm from, everything I've been through.” To the credit of the reporters, nobody leaped to his or her feet to declare, “Come on, Kyrgios, you’re from wealthy Australia, you’ve had tremendous support and backing all your life, you’ve been through nothing that you didn’t ask for—or bring upon yourself.”

Of course, Kyrgios was once again planting the idea that, were he willing and able to put in work and effort comparable to his peers, the honor roll of Grand Slam champions could look very different. We can’t ever know about that. But we can safely say that for a host of reasons Kyrgios had an excellent chance to win Wimbledon this year, but he didn’t get the job done.

“I was obviously super excited to be here,” he said of this year’s event. “I had some high hopes, but I've never felt, to be honest, good. I just felt so much pressure. There's so much, like, anxiety, pressure to do things or achieve things.”

Welcome to the real world of big-time tennis, Nick. Please stay a while, but bear in mind that it’s no place for the soft.