All it took to transform Nick Kyrgios’s image in his own country was one idea and one sentence getting caught in his throat.
The idea was to donate £110 to victims of bushfires for every ace he serves this month, which he first announced via his social media. In an example of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, dozens of Australian and international athletes have followed the lead he set and done similar things.
Then came the on-court interview after his first appearance in the ATP Cup. ‘My hometown is Canberra and it’s got the most toxic air in the world, that’s sad, it’s tough,’ he said, voice cracking with emotion.
All it took to transform Nick Kyrgios’s bad-boy image in his own country was one idea
While people who know him would be less surprised at his being first out of the blocks on this, it has led many to reassess their opinion of Kyrgios in a country still reeling from the effect of terrible blazes in country areas.
‘I guess with everything going on, the other stuff outside tennis, maybe that’s more what they support rather than my tennis itself,’ he reflected on Friday. ‘Everything I’m doing is just because I care.’
Now for the difficult bit – putting in the kind of run at his home Grand Slam befitting of a player possessing a natural talent the equal of anyone trying to challenge the trinity of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
His performances in helping Australia reach the semi-finals of the inaugural ATP Cup amassed some credit for him on that front, but nothing can substitute flying the national flag over the next fortnight.
How motivated will he be? Having lost to Spain in Sydney, Kyrgios went home to Canberra for three days before heading to Melbourne to play a couple of exhibitions, one of them the Rally For Relief bushfire fundraiser.
There is no question that the enfant terrible of Australian tennis has been genuinely affected by what is going on in the wider world.
Krygios’ idea was to donate £110 to victims of bushfires for every ace he serves this month
‘It’s not easy to just completely switch your concentration on the Australian Open – how is your forehand going today? – when you put it in perspective of what is actually going on.
‘It’s not just here. The earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Just things happening at the moment, they’re much larger than all of this. At the same time I have to find the balance. I have to go out there and try to get the best out of my game.
‘I think when I’m playing, at the moment I’m playing for a lot more than myself.’
It is probably not helpful for him that he finds himself the highest ranked Australian man in the draw, now that No 1 Alex de Minaur is out injured.
Ash Barty is the best hope the hosts have for a singles winner, but such is the interest in Kyrgios that the focus will be equally on him.
The ATP Cup team event saw him playing at least to his ranking of 26, but during the tournament he issued a note of caution in that blunt way of his.
Australia is still reeling from the effect of terrible blazes in country areas
‘When I’m playing for myself, I find it hard to get up. My motivation levels are pretty low most of the time, but something about these guys and playing for them brings it out of me and I just love it.’
There are, unfortunately, several reasons to doubt that he will go as far as, or better his best performance in Melbourne getting to the fourth round in 2018.
The most prosaic of these is that he is not physically fit enough to withstand the rigours of competition over a fortnight that tests resilience to the limit.
One veteran Australian player offered another take on why he feels Kyrgios is not able to fulfil his extravagant potential.
‘I think there’s a big fear of failure element somewhere in there,’ he said. ‘It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to properly prepare so there’s a fallback position for him if he does not come through and win what he should.’
Kyrgios admitted he has been seeing a sports psychologist, something the ATP Tour has been keen for him to do since it handed out its latest punishment to him in September after more on-court outbursts.
The 24-year-old said it is hard to concentrate on tennis given what has happened in his country
He is currently playing under a suspended ban, although it does not apply to the Grand Slams, which are beyond the tour’s jurisdiction.
There is no way the Australian Open would want to be without him, and he was one of the star attractions among the big names who played in Wednesday evening’s fundraiser.
He was in phlegmatic mood ahead of the tournament, his new-found sense of perspective helping him avoid rising to criticisms made by Alex Zverev on Friday.
The German, who also tends to speak his mind, commented that there were simply better young players around than the Australian, and made reference to his aforementioned stamina.
‘It is not a three-set match where you can win in an hour-and-20 and get off the court. To beat the best, you have to play at your best for a longer period of time,’ observed Zverev.
‘I’m not going to entertain that too much,’ responded Kyrgios. ‘With everything going on, that’s the least of my worries. I’m not quite sure where those comments come from. I’m sure he didn’t mean them in a bad way. But if he did, then I’m sorry for whatever I’ve done to you.’