This is a continuation of my last article on my insights from watching the pros live at Cincy, read it here.
As I mentioned in my last post, my trip to the Cincinnati Open was marred by missing six of the top ten– Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic and Murray. They were only present in hastily repurposed posters and grayed out names. Fortunately, I got a detailed look at the next generation in tennis.
I’ll focus on the player who went furthest in the tournament, Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios is a controversial figure in ATP Tennis. He doesn’t have the passion and dedication to tennis that we have grown used to with the Big Four. Undeniably he has the talent. I saw his ability up close and personal in his match vs Alexander Dolgopolov.
Kyrgios is tall and powerful. But he doesn’t play a conventional power game. His forehand is a looping, wristy stroke that drags his opponents around the court. In contrast, his backhand is a flat push at hip level. He engages his wrists at the last moment to direct it. This gives Kyrgios great disguise but little margin.
Neither Kyrgios’s forehand or backhand deserve special recognition. It’s possible to make him look slow and toothless from the back of the court. Grigor Dimitrov did it in the final. Andy Murray can too, hence his lopsided 5-0 head to head advantage.
While Kyrgios’s ground strokes can be controlled, his serve is a tiger on a frayed leash. I’ve often marveled at his serve, but seeing it in person brought my appreciation of the stroke to a whole new level. He has the fastest arm since Popeye. Warming up, Kyrgios abbreviates his lengthy stroke, leaves out the knee bend and yet belts the ball upwards of 120 miles an hour.
It’s not just power. He has variety and disguise. Until I saw Kyrgios live I never noticed how low his toss is. The ball barely gets three feet over his head.The returner has very little time to read the toss before the Australian’s lightning arm catches up. Kyrgios also hits a somewhat unorthodox serve out wide on the deuce side, a kick serve motion with slice added at the last second. The ball jumps forward past his opponent.
Against Dolgopolov Kyrgios’s serve was his saving grace. One game in the second he went down 0-40 in a game, and the crowd mumbled and prepared for a third set. Kyrgios hit 5 unreturned serves in a row to hold. Then at 6-6 in the tiebreak, he hit a 141 mph ace down the tee, a crack of thunder.
Kyrgios’s serve was a big part of how he won the match. But there is another element to Kyrgios’s game that excites tennis fans. He has clever, quick hands and reads the game beautifully. There are numerous youtube videos dedicated to his hotshots, but here’s a relevant example:
Reading so far, you may be confused why such a talented player would be controversial. Indeed, he’s beaten Novak Djokovic twice, Roger Federer once, and Rafael Nadal twice at the age of 22. Despite his serve and lack of fear against the very best, Kyrgios has a grave weakness. His mind often wanders off.
I got to see Kyrgios’s mental lapses in person. Dolgopolov has a very unorthodox game, and this bothered Kyrgios. The Ukrainian hits these side-spinning windmill backhands that barely move off the ground–Kyrgios couldn’t figure out what to do. He netted three forehands. Then tried to hit a tweener off one.
Stubbornness with regards to strategy isn’t that unusual. But that first tweener was part of an array of unnecessary trick shots. In the second set, he had a chance to break Dolgopolov and serve out the match, but ruined it with a ungraceful front-facing tweener. The crowd booed. Kyrgios berated himself angrily.
This is the controversial element of Kyrgios. He does stupid things when he’s not focused. Not just trick shots, but swearing and hijinks. And when the match is tight or he feels emotional he sometimes does stupid things like berating ball boys or insulting his opponents, which counters his “I just want to be a nice person” attitude in press conferences.
This combination of emotion and lack of focus can be very hard for crowds to accept. For this reason fans are often unfairly hostile, and it can turn into a vicious cycle. (Personally, I thought I felt a tinge of racism to the crowd’s reactions when I watched him– the mohawk, the chains–Cincinnati is Middle America).
Critics of Kyrgios see his talent, and then see the unfortunate way many of his matches turn out. Frustrated, they tend to exhult him to just get motivated already. It’s a tough ask. Kyrgios doesn’t love tennis with the mindless furor of Rafael Nadal. He is actually very honest about this and should be commended for it:
The critics are right. Increased motivation would help. Against lesser-ranked players Kyrgios has mental lapses the length of a set, or a match. His trick shots bring down boos. Against the Big Four you rarely see a single lapse in focus, and the trick shots go for winners. The more he values a match, the more he’s likely to focus. But I also think the way he deals with those lapses needs work, and proper sports counseling would help him there.
When Kyrgios lost focus and hit that tweener on break point, he immediately turned negative. Why? He should look at it with humor. He practices to have fun, and so he often plays to have fun. He might occasionally do stupid stuff. He should recognize and be aware and control his emotions and return to the game. Dealing with your attentional lapses compassionately and carefully is called “mindfulness” in psychology, and mindfulness practice is sweeping many domains of life from sports to teaching to the military.
Kyrgios could benefit from mindfulness practice. It is possible that his emotion-based game often allows him to win those huge matches, or hit those huge shots. But the lows are just so low. He needs to learn how to manage those moments when tennis isn’t quite as fun, or his trick shots don’t work, or the crowd boos.
As tennis fans we’ve been spoiled by the professionalism of the Big Four. Rafa and Roger are so mentally tuned to tennis that you rarely see a stupid decision or a lapse in attention. How many of us perform with such perfection? I find myself excited to see Kyrgios navigate his problems. It’s a long interesting road ahead for the young Aussie.
If you’re curious what I thought of the other prominent members of the “NextGen”- Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, see my little vignettes below.
Dominic Thiem. Thiem played Fabio Fognini, which I naively thought could be a popcorn match. Fognini played like a caricature of himself. He swaggered and gestured. He hit loose balls. He hit a really nice backhand, once. He even vomited on the court at one point. In short, he put up little fight.
Thiem won 6-2, 6-3. I had been expecting trouble as his lengthy strokes and court positioning can be problematic on hard courts. But he shortened his strokes and moved up the court, showing versatility I thought he lacked. In person, his backhand is stunning. His racket is his sword in its sheath, hanging close to his hip, and he brings it up and out in a flamboyant flourish. The crowd shivered when he hit it up the line. Thiem also hits trampoline kick serves, even out wide to the forehand. One bounced about 7 feet in the air and Fognini whiffed and shrugged his eyebrows.
Thiem was exceedingly professional against an unpredictable opponent. He reminded me of Rafa in his intensity point-to-point. Thiem is a fixture in the top ten, where Kyrgios has never been. It isn’t enough to be talented in today’s age. You must be diligent and mentally tough. The next man also has this quality.
Alexander Zverev. I watched young Sascha Zverev lose to the American Frances Tiafoe. He won the previous two tournaments this summer so it was fitting that I should watch the streak end.
Zverev’s game wasn’t particularly exciting. He plays like a faster Marin Cilic. His power baseline game has helped him win 46 matches this year, including two masters tournaments (against Djokovic and Federer in the finals no less). But I love watching him for the fire in his belly.
Zverev knows how to win when he’s not playing his best. He relies on his serve, rarely commits strategic mistakes, and waits for his opponents to make mental lapses. In his loss against Tiafoe I saw this. Zverev could hardly hit a groundstroke he was so fatigued, but still very nearly took Tiafoe to a tiebreak. He didn’t seem fazed by a partisan crowd, or his opponent’s winners, or his mistakes. Perhaps he just has a good game face– but I think recent results show that instead he has deep confidence at the moment.
Tiafoe himself was impressive. The 19-year old has been hyped to a ridiculous degree in the U.S. He’s living up to it, becoming stronger every year. When I saw him he was very quick in defense laterally, and front-to-back. His technique may be a stumbling block in his road to tennis fame– his forehand and serve looks like he’s playing lacrosse, catching and cradling the ball in wide swoops. But he gets serious dip and pace with both.