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Kyrgios still divides opinion but Australia’s biggest hope is winning over his detractors

The tone of the media coverage in the build-up to the Australian Open suggests Kyrgios is winning over his detractors

Nick Kyrgios, 2023 Nick Kyrgios, 2023 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

During his pre-Australian Open press conference on Saturday. Nick Kyrgios was asked by a Danish journalist what advice he would give to Holger Rune, the young Dane who burst into the world’s top 10 in 2022.

The 19-year-old Rune has ruffled a few feathers at times on court, not afraid to get under the skin of his opponents, not unlike Kyrgios himself. Listening to his answer was fascinating, on a number of levels.

“He’s one of the best talents that we have in the sport,” Kyrgios said. “He’s got the ability to win multiple Grand Slams. If I was Denmark…I would just make sure they support him, give him all the support.

“He’s a young guy. He’s super young. He’s doing everyone proud around him. He’s going to deal with a lot of pressure and expectations.

“Instead of criticising him, you focus on the positives. What he’s able to do already. What he’s done in such a short period of time. He’s so young and he’s beating guys like Novak Djokovic in the finals of Paris (Bercy). Focus on that rather than the 30 seconds when things get out of hand for 30 seconds. How good is he over the 95% of the time? He’s amazing.

“He’s an exciting talent, super good guy as well. I’ve got to know him a little bit over the last couple months. He’s going to have an unbelievable career. He’s a super hard worker. Yeah, I would just tell Denmark to just embrace that. He’s the best player for your country. Just remember that.”

Australia loves a winner, dislikes a bragger

It was no surprise that Kyrgios should focus on the advice he would give Denmark, rather than that he might give Rune himself.

The 27-year-old has divided opinion almost from the moment he hit the scene in Australia. For some, he’s a free spirit who deserves to be left alone in order to find his best, for some; he was considered a wasted talent; and for others, his volatile temperament and numerous incidences of poor on-court behaviour were too much to cope with.

Kyrgios is also quick to point out what he feels is hypocrisy at the way he’s treated, especially on social media, the area of the media he seems particularly animated about.

Australian sports stars often complain about the way they are perceived by the public in their own country. Australians love winners but they also don’t like a bragger; for most, they prefer the humility of a Pat Rafter or Ash Barty to the cockiness of a Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt was a serial winner, but he could never claim to be loved by his home fans, at least not when he was at his peak.

Maturity and consistency making the difference

As the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on Sunday, “Kyrgios is no choir boy”, pointing to the way he pulled out of the United Cup at the last moment earlier this month, seemingly without giving team captain Hewitt an explanation, or notice.

There’s also the no small matter of the ongoing court case involving a former girlfriend, who has accused him of common assault. Kyrgios, who denies the accusation, is due in court in February

But there’s no question that in the past 12 months, Kyrgios’ standing in the sport has gone up, thanks to the consistency of his performances. He only played 13 events in 2022, but he won his seventh career title in Washington and reached the quarter-finals or better in nine events, including Wimbledon, where he made the final of a slam for the first time.

Tone of media coverage more sympathetic

The relationship between Kyrgios and the Australian media, in particular, is a fragile one. If he steps out of line they will always be ready to criticise him but it’s been noticeable in the tone of the newspaper coverage going into this year’s Australian Open that the media is hugely positive.

Kyrgios is, after all, their biggest hope of a first men’s champion here since Mark Edmondson in 1976, and they are getting behind him. But it’s the way he has dedicated himself to the sport more in the past year than ever before that people seem to appreciate.

After the exhibition match between Kyrgios and Novak Djokovic here at Melbourne Park on Friday, Kyrgios said he was looking forward to the days, when he eventually retires, to being able to eat and drink whatever he wants to.

It was a telling moment. In previous years, Kyrgios has made no secret that he was not the most disciplined of players; at Wimbledon one year he was a frequent visitor to one of the local pubs, late into the evening and more often than not, he talked of wanting to put on a show, rather than do what he needs to do to win.

But on Friday, he revealed something that suggests things have changed.

“It’s a hard lifestyle,” he said. “The dedication these guys show – I did a bit of that last year to show the world I’m still one of the best. But I’m going to try and do it this year and hopefully I can do it, but it will be hard.”

After reaching the Wimbledon final, Kyrgios could easily have fallen into old habits, feeling sorry for himself after coming so close to a first slam title. He didn’t. Instead, he won Washington and was a couple of games away from reaching the US Open semi-finals, before losing a thriller to Karen Khachanov.

He has matured, and he now has the vast majority of home fans on his side. He plays Russian Roman Safiullin in round one and could face Rune in round three. If he stays fully fit, he is going to be dangerous in Melbourne this year.

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