From elite professional to recreational hacker, timing is crucial in tennis. The ability to judge the speed, depth, spin and trajectory of the ball, anticipate the bounce and swing accordingly is a large part of what determines someone’s ceiling in the sport. In this article, we will consider timing as an entirely different construct.
With the big four – Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic – either at the end of their peaks, or just approaching the downside of their athletic curve, we may well be experiencing a transitional phase at the top of the game. For a world-class prospect, there has not been a better time to compete for a grand slam since the start of the millennium, when Hewitt, Roddick, Gaudio and Ferrero all grabbed Major titles before the emergence of Federer & Nadal. Whereas the aforementioned Murray and Djokovic generally had to struggle past one or both of Federer and Nadal in their primes, elite players coming into their peaks in the next five years will likely have an easier task at hand. This is not to say that they will stroll to Grand Slam victory, merely that they will have the opportunity to do so without needing to topple one of the game’s all time great players.
Over the next five blog posts, we will consider five players perfectly poised to take the next step and claim Grand Slam victory. We will look at their strengths, weaknesses and assess their best chances of success. First up in the list is the Australian born Nick Kyrgios.
N.B. The age cut off, for the purposes of this list, will be 23, an admittedly arbitrary indulgence.
Nick Kyrgios – Age 21, Ranking 16
The now-infamous Kyrgios feels older than his 21 years of age, partly due to his reaching the Wimbledon quarter finals in 2014 aged 19, partly also because he has already been involved in numerous high profile controversies during his brief career.
Pros: As seen in his recent victory over Djokovic, Kyrgios has an absolutely monstrous serve. Against arguably the world’s premier returner, Kyrgios hit 25 aces in just 2 sets, achieved 74% first serves and won 80% of all his service points. The Australian has a smooth yet dynamic service motion, which coupled with his natural athleticism and live arm (cf. Pete Sampras), combines to produce a devastating delivery. A habit of hitting second serve aces points to either his supreme confidence or recklessness, depending on one’s point of view. This can make him erratic at the worst of times, but near enough unplayable when at his best, placing control of the match on his own racket and largely taking the opponent out of the picture. This probably adds to Kyrgios’ conviction that he alone can decide the fate of any match.
Added to this, Kyrgios has a powerful and versatile forehand. Known for blasting highlight reel winners at 80 MPH+, the huge racket head speed he achieves also generates significant spin, giving his forehand a healthy margin for error. Like many of his peers, he is comfortable blasting the forehand from an inside-out position, but can also work acute cross-court angles and go down the line when needed.
Blessed with athleticism and a long stride, Kyrgios could, in theory, become adept at defending and counter-punching from the baseline. Given his mental disposition and preference for shot making however, it is likely that his excellent court coverage will be used mainly to attempt high-risk winners from unlikely court positions.
Cons: Whereas his forehand possesses great power combined with huge spin, Kyrgios’ backhand lacks variety, and is a rather one-paced shot. While Kyrgios can blast his backhand cross court and redirect it up the line, both are very flat shots, dependent entirely on his timing and court positioning – there is little margin for error if either goes awry. Kei Nishikori has established a simple but effective strategy for neutralising Kyrgios on slower courts, especially clay: simply keeping the ball deep on Kyrgios’ backhand side, mixing it up to the forehand often enough to keep him from cheating over to the backhand side too much. Those possessed with a world class two handed backhand, such as Nishikori and Murray, will generally be able to trap Kyrgios in his backhand corner, as the Australian does not have the control or weight of shot to consistently play himself out of trouble.
It is fair to say that the return of serve and defensive baseline play are not Kyrgios’ forte. While not terrible by any means, his lack of elite return game means he can get dragged into long, five set matches with fellow big servers, both being unable to break one another. Equally, Kyrgios’ defensive game leaves something to be desired. Against weaker opposition, the Aussie can rely on his innate athleticism and dominant offensive game and therefore largely gets away hitting lackluster defensive shots combined with rather mediocre anticipation. When playing against the very best however, he struggles when placed onto the backfoot in a rally. Unable or unwilling to vary his play and hit more looping, spin-laden shots, he often resorts to blasting high-risk winners from unlikely positions, with predictable results.
Finally no analysis of Kyrgios’ game could reasonably gloss over his mental fortitude, or lack thereof. Incidents where Kyrgios has insulted his opponent, thrown a tantrum, gotten into a spat with the umpire or otherwise mentally melted down are well known. While undoubtedly distasteful to observe and certainly not conducive to winning tennis matches, these faults can, from a forgiving observing, be attributed to a fiery competitor simply spilling over into the realms of unacceptable behaviour, ala John McEnroe. More worrying are some of Kyrgios’ losses where he has showed very little belief in his chances to win the match and has gone down with a whimper. This to a possible lack of determination which may well prove to be his undoing when it comes to Grand Slam success.
Chance of Grand Slam victory: 50%
So much depends on the space between Kyrgios ears that estimating his chance of a Grand Slam victory is fiendishly difficult. Even with an unpolished game and a scatty mental approach, Kyrgios has managed to reach 16 in the world at the mere age of 21. His power and athleticism alone have taken him this far – if he can add a few nuances to his game, remain fit, and somehow focus for seven matches in a two week period, then his chances of winning a major are very high indeed. However, the history of professional tennis is littered with spectacularly talented men and women who, for a variety of reasons, could not maximise their vast abilities to achieve Grand Slam glory.
Greatest chance of success: Wimbledon
Kyrgios loves the big stage, and arguably there is none bigger than Center Court at SW19. On a technical level, the speed at which the ball travels off the grass, and the low bounce, help Kyrgios in several ways: first, his huge serve is made even more devastating; second, he is able to attack his opponent’s second serve, knowing that a well-struck return will elicit a weak reply, or no reply at all; and third, his flat backhand skips off the grass with greater effect than on clay or hard courts. Never one blessed with patience or disposed towards lengthy rallies, the quicker surfaces allow him to play his natural game.
As the most high-profile youngster in tennis today, Nick Kyrgios is fairly practised in causing upsets -whether through defeating more established players, or generally causing upset with careless behaviour and ill-thought out remarks, the young Australian is accustomed to being the centre of attention. How disconcerting it must have been therefore to have the outcome of this Round 3 match-up totally taken out of his hands.
Some of Kyrgios’s best results to date have come from overwhelming his opponents with his dynamic power tennis. In his two Grand Slam quarter-final appearances, the Australian faced relatively defensive, steady players in previous rounds, defeating Seppi in the 2015 Australian Open and (more famously) Nadal at Wimbledon 2014. Seppi and Nadal proved rather accommodating opponents – neither serve particularly big and both are content to engage in long rallies, waiting for a short ball before attacking. Such an approach gives Kyrgios numerous opportunities to use his explosive power off both wings. Even when manoeuvred out of position, his athleticism enables him to hit highlight-reel winners from unlikely positions.
Against the number 6 seed Tomas Berdych, he faced an entirely different challenge. Whereas Kyrgios can simply over-power many of his opponents, Berdych is an expert at taking and maintaining the advantage in rallies. The Czech was actually out-served, hitting a mere 8 aces compared to Kyrgios’s 18, and making 6 double faults to the Australian’s 2. Furthermore, Kyrgios won an impressive 82% of points on his first serve, serving at 60% first serves in. This ensured that Kyrgios was winning a substantial number of free points and was often starting rallies on the front foot. This made it imperative that Berdych dominate the bulk of the neutral rallies on his and Kyrgios’ second serve.
Few players on the tour hit the ball so cleanly, and with as little topspin as Berdych, and therefore Kyrgios could be forgiven for struggling to adjust his game accordingly. While the Australian came back into the match, winning the third set, this was as much due to a lapse in concentration from Berdych, as it was credit to an improvement from Kyrgios. The latter has a habit of defending through a reliance on his athleticism – often hitting weak, mid-court slices, before retreating a few steps and using his speed and agility to retrieve whatever is thrown at him. Against a power-hitter like Berdych, such a strategy isn’t really viable. The Czech hit an enormous 25 winners off his forehand alone, evidence of his devastating potential to lead the play when given a chance.
Generally speaking, players have had success against Berdych by using the Czech’s power against him, and pushing him out wide. Once pushed outside the tramlines, Berdych does not have the malleability on either groundstroke to play a defensively savvy shot – rather than give himself time with a deep, looping topspin shot, he will invariably go for a hard, flat winner, with a relatively low probability of going in.
Nikolai Davydenko, himself never a Grand Slam finalist, had a dominant head to head record over Berdych, leading the series 9-2 (not including a retirement), going on a run of eight victories in a row over the Czech. Despite being 6 inches shorter, and possessing of a far weaker serve, the Russian was able to outmanoeuvre his larger opponent. Using his superb reflexes and compact groundstrokes, he was able to stand right up on the baseline and re-direct Berdych’s powerful groundstrokes, stretching his opponent out-wide, into a position he doesn’t want to be.
While it remains to be seen if Kyrgios has the technique and hand-eye co-ordination to adopt such an approach, he certainly cannot remain so passive in rallies against opponents like Berdych.
Had Kyrgios drawn a different seed in his quarter – say David Ferrer or Rafael Nadal – he might well have progressed further in the tournament. Furthermore, with his talent and ability, he may well go on to achieve more than Berdych in his career. For the time being however, this remains a bad match-up for the pugnacious Aussie.