“The (inner game) is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”Timothy Gallwey
At some point in 2021 I became a pro Tennis fan. Specifically, a Nick Kyrgios fan. Kyrgios turned pro in 2013, and as an Australian who wants to see a Grand Slam come home, I had already been rooting for him, despite all his yelling, bad sportsmanship and general disdain for the sport. But in 2021, watching him go ballistic against Thiem I saw something different. I was addicted!
What makes him so interesting to watch? Why did I need him to win so badly? He usually flames out in early rounds, or maybe would make the quarters of a grand slam. After following him on a very good 2022, where he won the Doubles Grand Slam and several other tournaments, I have a few theories on what makes him tick and so fun to watch.
Firstly, let’s get the obvious out of the way. When a Nike scout discovered Kyrgios tooling around on some weedy grass court in Canberra he said “Unbelievable talent. Ridiculously fast arm. Out of shape. Big mouth.” This hasn’t changed. The variety, speed, flair, inventive-ness of his hitting makes the rest of the top 20 look like cyborgs.
But, like most tennis players, his biggest enemy is himself. Tennis is a very mental game, where you can’t afford to think too much and a small slip in concentration might mean game over. He doesn’t hide this fact.
To deal with himself and his own mind, he has two simple tactics. Rage and ambivalence.
- Rage. Over some points or entire matches, Kyrgios goes thermonuclear. Sometimes this will get him kicked out of the arena. But also might deliver some of the most astonishing shots you’ll ever see. A game that comes to mind is the Wimbledon final. He could not serve any stronger or better, and Djokovic answers everything quietly and smugly. “WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO!!!!” Stay angry I guess.
- Ambivalence. The flip side to rage is the characteristic that is most identified with his public image, at least in Australia. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t try. He’s a waste. If only he applied himself. Look at the comments under any of his videos on YouTube to see people praying for him in this way. But I think like rage, this is a way to ‘switch off his brain’. When he doesn’t care, there’s no tenseness, no overthinking. Game that comes to mind is when he went ‘god mode’ playing Rublev in Miami. He looks bemused at the shame and anger that his opponent is stewing in. “He’s working like he’s got a reservation to get to.”
I think this can be frustrating for many of his fans, because he’s likely not consistent enough to win a slam, and even if he did, he would laugh – understanding the chaos he had to deal with between his ears.