ANDY MURRAY has been here before. Once upon a time, he was a 19-year-old rising star playing at his home grand slam. Hyped by the media, his followers raved about his talents, while his critics whinged about his temper, his body language and general demeanour.
Yes, Murray knows just what it feels like to be Nick Kyrgios today.
This morning, the 19-year-old Australian will attempt one more grand slam giant killing act (he beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon) as he faces Murray in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. It is the match the local crowds have longed for since Lleyton Hewitt reached the last eight ten years ago and it is the match they hope will prove that Kyrgios is the real deal.
Tall at 6ft 4ins with a thumping serve and a natural talent as showman, Kyrgios has divided opinion in Melbourne. His fightback from two sets down to Andreas Seppi on Sunday night had everyone on the edge of their seats; his swearing and racket smashing had the traditionalists positively apoplectic. As for his assertion before the tournament that he could “make an impact” at the Open, that just branded him as a cocky little so-and-so who ought to know his place (he is the world No 53). It is clearly not easy being Kyrgios in Australia.
“People are very quick to jump on players and judge players based on them throwing a racket or shouting something on the court,” Murray said sympathetically. “When you are in the spotlight and there is a bit more pressure and stress on you, it’s not an easy thing to deal with because, at that age, you aren’t used to it. I think it’s harsh to judge people based on something they might say or do on the tennis court. I think more by their actions off the court is how better to judge them.”
Critics aside, the home fans are champing at the bit for the match to start. Channel 7, the host broadcaster, has been running a “Countdown to Nick” clock on its sports news bulletins, counting off the minutes until their boy steps on court. Kyrgios has only won one tour match away from the grand slams but, when it comes to the big stages, he is the ultimate showman. And now is his ultimate test: can he handle the weight of national expectation and beat a resurgent Murray to reach the semi-finals?
“I think everyone’s different,” Murray said. “When I played at Wimbledon when I was 19, I really enjoyed it. There’s no pressure at that age because you’re not expected to win. After you’ve beaten a top player on a big court, it’s great, but once you start to get a little bit older and people are expecting you to reach the quarters, the semis, the final, then that changes things.
“I would say it’s probably a bit easier to enjoy it when you’re that age, but, obviously, once you get to the latter stages, the pressure builds because you’re only a couple of matches away from winning.”
“From the matches I’ve seen he’s obviously played very good tennis but he’s also been showing a lot of emotion. He’s broken a bunch of rackets and got a bunch of warnings as well. I don’t know if that’s through stress or nerves or pressure or whatever it is. But he’s obviously playing extremely well. I’ve no idea how he deals with the pressure.”
As every player who has ever experienced a Wimbledon championship alongside Murray will admit, the pressure does not get any greater than on a Brit in SW19. That Murray was able to cope with his own expectations, the nation’s desperate wish for a British champion and the relentless media coverage to win the title in 2013 speaks volumes about the Scot’s mental fortitude. The thought, then, of 15,000 fans chanting Kyrgios’s name today is no cause for concern. In fact, it is just the sort of atmosphere to rev up the world No 6.
“I think it is more playing in an atmosphere,” he said. “I like playing in front of a big crowd, I enjoy playing on the big courts and there is always a very good atmosphere when you play against them. I have also a very good record in the Davis Cup home and away. I enjoy it, I enjoy playing whether it is a home crowd that is right behind you or a crowd that is completely against you. When there is an atmosphere, it does give you a little bit of extra focus, concentration. I have played well in the past in those situations.”
They have only played once before in Canada last summer when Murray squashed the teenager in straight sets. What he learned that day, coupled with what he has seen of the Australian in his pre-match research will, he thinks, give him a solid platform from which to work today.
As he practised yesterday, he showed no sign of a hangover from the three-and-a-half hours it took him to beat Grigor Dimitrov the night before. He was fresh, he was eager and he looked ready to put Kyrgios in his place. His rival, on the other hand, has played two, long, emotionally draining five setters to reach today’s showdown. And, while Murray was practising quietly on an outside court, Kyrgios was entertaining the crowd in his practise session before going to chat to the massed ranks of TV crews. Today’s match is the showman against the hardened professional.
“Everyone deals with it differently,” Murray said. “Some people love the attention and like reading the newspapers and seeing what people are saying. I prefer to try to stay away from it all and try to conserve my energy for the match. If you get distracted by everything else that’s going on around you, then you think about the match more, I feel like you burn more energy and you feel nervous for longer. So I prefer to just stay away from it all.”
If the match follows the form guide, Kyrgios will have plenty of time to get away from it all once today’s match is done. Murray is looking calm, focused and controlled and, despite his firepower, that ought to be too much for Australia’s great hope.
•Kyrgios was a keen basketball player and played at regional representative levels until he was forced to pick between basketball and tennis at the age of 14. Kyrgios described the decision as “probably the toughest I’ve ever had to make.”
•Kyrgios is a big Tottenham Hotspur fan and was given a specially-arranged tour of the club’s training facility in November. “I’ve been following Emmanuel Adebayor for quite a while,” Kyrgios admitted.
•Kyrgios’s father George wears the same “lucky” fluorescent striped shirt each time he watches his son play - not that Kyrgios is impressed. “I’m not big on karma and superstition, so I don’t really know why he does that,” he said.
•Kyrgios was reluctantly introduced to tennis at the age of seven by his mother Nill. He recalled: “My mum brought me down to the local tennis centre in Canberra, my home town. I wasn’t keen. I didn’t want to play it.”
•His sister Halimah is a model and musical theatre performer. She received a scholarship to attend the McDonald Performing Arts College in Sydney before completing a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theatre in Singapore.
•Kyrgios found himself embroiled in an unlikely feud with Canadian rapper Drake during his Wimbledon run last year. Kyrgios put his bad start in a match against Jiri Vesily down to listening to Drake’s music as he walked on court. Drake responded that he would “size up” the tennis player, “then chop him right down”.
•Kyrgios saved a Wimbledon record nine match points in his match against Richard Gasquet last year, eventually winning 3-6, 6-7 (4/7), 6-4 7-5, 10-8.