Nick Kyrgios: Tennis’ Next Great Underachiever?

Nick Kyrgios to tennis: I’m just not that into you. That’s the sentiment you can’t help but take away from Wilmington-based writer Michael Steinberger’s latest piece, a cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

In “The Electric, Infuriating Nick Kyrgios,” Steinberger masterfully captures the magical talent and maddening disinterest of this young Australian tennis phenom, who can come across as a dude who’d rather be playing Pokémon Go or a pickup game of hoops than a career-making five-setter in the upcoming US Open.

We’ve volleyed with the wine/tennis expert Steinberger before, and he graciously agreed to provide a behind-the-scenes tour of his hours studying and interviewing the curious Kyrgios.

TownSquareDelaware: So, how did you come to write about Kyrgios?


Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios

Michael Steinberger: I first saw him play two years ago, at Wimbledon, and I have been following him closely ever since. The thing that has always stood out to me is the easy power he generates – it seems almost effortless at times. It’s the same thing you saw with guys like Sampras and Safin when they first came along.

Kyrgios also has phenomenal touch and a serve that can unquestionably carry him to major titles. So it was clear to me pretty early on that he has the talent to reach the top, and he also has this very dynamic personality – it’s a combination that’s catnip for journalists, and I decided a few months ago that I wanted to do a feature about him and was fortunate enough to get an assignment.

TSD: Your piece certainly hints at your opinion of the guy, but after meeting him and talking to so many key people in tennis, what is your assessment of his future in the game?  Can he get into the really elite tier of players at the top?

Steinberger: He certainly has the talent to win majors and to get to number one.

Does he have the ambition to get there, and the willingness to put in the work required to do so? That’s unclear. The reason people get so frustrated with Kyrgios is because they see the potential, and they fear it is going to be squandered.

It didn’t make it into my article, but I discussed Kyrgios with Paul Annacone, who coached both Federer and Sampras, and he was very reluctant to make any predictions about Kyrgios. He said the ability is certainly there, but it’s not clear yet that he has the head and the heart to get to the pinnacle of the sport.

Kyrgios is in the top 20 now (seeded 14th at the Open), and has won two titles this season–for a guy who says he is ambivalent about tennis and who admits that he doesn’t want to train as hard as his peers, he’s doing pretty damn well. But to go further now, to break into the top five and to win grand slam titles, is going to require a level of dedication and determination beyond what we’ve seen from him to this point. Is he willing to put in that kind of work, and to really put it all on the line like that? Stay tuned.

TSD: Kyrgios is a very different type of character in a game that, after the Big Four and Serena move on, doesn’t have a lot of up and coming star power.  Is professional tennis looking at a bleak era ahead when it comes to charismatic superstars?

Steinberger: When Federer retires, tennis is going to lose its most adored champion. When the Williams sisters retire, it is going to lose arguably the two most compelling figures it has produced.

These are players who have not only enthralled tennis aficionados but who, for different reasons, have also drawn the attention of millions of people who would otherwise have little if any interest in the sport. So these pending retirements are going to be a heavy, heavy blow for tennis.

The sport not only needs new superstars to emerge, it needs a charismatic figure or two who can help fill the void that is going to be left when Federer and the Williams sisters move on. On the men’s side, at least, Kyrgios is the one rising star who can potentially check both of those boxes – who can be the new superstar, and who also has the big personality that pulls in more casual fans.

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