On Wednesday night, Rafa Nadal took a 6-3 lead on Nick Kyrgios in the deciding set of their early round match in Acapulco, meaning he had three match points. Even by his fiery standards, Rafa was fired up to give himself the chance at victory, but then Kyrgios did this:
Notice in particular the post-match handshake—even in disappointment, Rafa is usually one of the most gracious players on tour, but his behavior to Kyrgios was pure frost. He might have been upset at Kyrgios' tactic of serving underhand, complaints about Rafa's pace, or he might have taken offense to the Aussie's post-victory antics, which included putting a hand behind his ear to taunt the crowd as they showered him with boos. Afterward, even more unusually, Nadal had some harsh words for his opponent:
"He is a player who has enormous talent. He could win Grand Slams and fight the top positions of the ranking, but there is a reason why he is where he is. He lacks respect for the public, the rival and towards himself."
By Rafa's standards, that's the equivalent of a slew of expletives followed by a fistfight. And while it was obviously the product of bitterness and frustration, he was also dead on the money. Two nights later, in the semifinals against John Isner, Kyrgios had a critical break point at 5-all in the first set, and chose that moment to taunt the crowd and take another shot at Rafa:
He won that point, as Rothenberg noted, and he won the match against Isner in another third set match breaker. In the final on Saturday night, he played Alexander Zverev, a player who seems to be laboratory-designed to serve as a human foil showcasing the abilities of his contemporaries. That may be harsh, but Kyrgios won all the big points, and leading 5-3 in the second set, waiting for his chance to serve out the match, he decided to hit a ground stroke from between his legs just for the hell of it. It was classic Kyrgios—flippant, insulting to his opponent, infuriating and impressive all at once. He lost that game, then served out the match to capture his second title. After the winning serve, he shushed the crowd:
(For what it's worth, Zverev showed amazing class afterward, even urging the fans to appreciate what they'd seen from Kyrgios.)
So, now that the 23-year-old Aussie has captured his fifth career title, let's run down a few facts about him. Starting with the positive:
1. When he's not injured or disinterested, he is the best player of his generation and—this is not hyperbole—one of the two or three best players in the world. Based on talent alone, he represents the best hope of the younger generation to finally overcome the oxygen-sucking dominance of the Big Three. In fact, he is 6-6 lifetime against them, including 2-0 vs. Djokovic.
2. Along with his talent, he is an unbelievable pressure player, as he showed yet again in Acapulco with three straight nail-biting victories against Nadal, Wawrinka, and Isner before the final.
3. He's one of those players who, even on a bad day, can save himself with his prodigious serving ability.
And the bad:
1. He is often unmotivated, grumpy, and utterly committed to self-sabotage.
2. His focus can be abysmal, which helps explain his record of underachievement in grand slams, where he's made just two quarterfinals and hasn't advanced past the fourth round since January 2015. He's prone to giving up games, sets, and even matches. In at least one case, a chair umpire felt compelled to give him a pep talk, which drew the ire of no less an eminence than Roger Federer himself.
3. He has, through no fault of his own, a very cocky, sneering face. If you're in an uncharitable mood, you might even say "punchable." Even his hair seems designed to present an aggressive/confrontational vibe. He's like an angrier Cristiano Ronaldo.
4. He sees no problem with playing the showman even when it would obviously disrespect his opponent, as we saw in the Acapulco final against his friend Zverev. But if you piss him off, watch out—he once told Stan Wawrinka that another player had slept with his girlfriend, and the two had to be separated in the locker room after the match. In that sense, he has a near-toxic streak of dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it petulance.
The narrative surrounding Kyrgios—one which has practically solidified from its earlier liquid state now that his early youth has come and gone—is that he's one of history's doomed men. For all his gifts, the theory goes, his mentality isn't up to the challenge, and we'll look back on him as someone who could never quite rise to the highest levels. He's already been cast as one of the sport's greatest what-ifs, and he's only 23. If there's an alternative narrative, it involves transformation—he matures, becomes more like Rafa, and sheds the fickleness of youth in order to reach the zenith.
But what if none of that is true? What if he never changes, and what if he can win anyway, on his own terms? What if the thing feat we just saw in Acapulco happens at a slam? It's not a great leap at all—the murderer's row he decimated in Mexico is no less difficult than what he might face at Wimbledon or Flushing Meadows, give or take a Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios is not Gael Monfils—under the right circumstances, he's a ruthless winner. We very much exist in a reality where Kyrgios can bash his way to a grand slam title while antagonizing the crowd, throwing games left and right, and generally making a pest of himself to all his opponents. If anything, we probably want to believe he'll fail, because failure feels like karama. We want to believe that the jerk gets his comeuppance in the end.
It doesn't always work out that way, though, does it? Most tennis fans, myself included, don't quite understand Nick Kyrgios, his capricious moods, or his inner barometer. But we understand the overall effect, which ranges from nettlesome to inflammatory. Our only solace at the moment is that he hasn't cracked the big time. Acapulco is one thing, but imagine for a moment that Kyrgios takes that act to a grand slam and actually wins, dethroning a few of our heroes along the way. Then his profile will rise, and he'll stand a chance to become not just the most hated man in tennis—a title he has basically achieved already—but perhaps in all of professional sports. As the gatekeepers grow older, and Kyrgios rises, it's more likely than you think.