Nick Kyrgios stood on the corner of his balcony room at Acapulco, a beach-resort town in Mexico. His first-round game was a few minutes away. “I felt so alone and suicidal. I was contemplating should I take my own life.” His trainer came and reminded him about the game. “I am having 20-30 drinks every night, alone, in my room, and waking hungover, playing matches.” A few days later he beat Rafael Nadal, Zverev and won the 2019 tournament. Yet, it was his darkest time, ever.
Alcohol and drugs had taken over his life.
Nadal would say something interesting the evening he was beaten. “I don’t think he’s a bad guy, but what he lacks is a little bit of respect for rival, public, and for himself. I think he should improve on that.” Perhaps, he came close home with that last assessment. Respect and love for himself and his life was at a premium then for Kyrgios.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed. Live,” he told the podcast Turn up the Talk. His friend Daniel had him on the location on his phone as he was afraid where Kyrgios would end up. “I just hated my life. I pushed my family, my good friends away. I couldn’t trust anyone. I was killing myself.”
The darkness kept unraveling within, then. It came to a boil at Wimbledon. He came to his room, drunk and drugged after a night-out, to find his father. The noise woke up the father, who had one look at the son and started crying, muttering, “you have to stop this Nick”. “That was the moment I decided I had to turn it around.”
“I didn’t embrace my family. My parents and family do care about me. I don’t think I understood that. Lean on my friends. People struggle to open up. I was a victim of that. I was a 23-24 year old dealing with mental problems. I was so afraid to open up. I didn’t want girls to think I am soft or have mental issues. Once that was accepted that it was okay, I understood my parents love me – I was okay. It’s okay to feel shit. Sometimes it was okay to feel not enough, to think I have disappointed others. It’s normal. Once I accepted that, things changed.
“I was 24, with millions of dollars, living in places like the Bahamas, no worries, – but I was miserable. I was really sad. I just want to be able to share. I didn’t have a good relationship with my brother and mother [in that phase]. I felt tense with them. It was a dark space.”
Sometimes, Kyrgios walks almost naked at his home. His mother laughs in the retelling to the national television network in Australia. “At times, he walks around showing his private parts,” she says pointing to the backside. “Home is where you are comfortable!”
The ABC’s host convulses into laughter. “All I had asked was how real Nick is and I didn’t expect the answer to be ‘he is more naked’!” It’s clear that some of Kyrgios’ no-filter talk comes from her.
Unfortunately, not all her stories about her son are hilarious. It’s 4 in the morning. Kyrgios is missing. His mother is worried. She tells the then agent John Morris, ‘He has to play tomorrow. Where is he?’ Kyrgios was drinking. Alcohol, drugs, and he was sliding into deep depression in 2020. She was worried, imagining the worst things he could do to himself.
“I’ve seen him in very dark times. I was worried sick that he was going to do something to himself. You’re left with that feeling as a parent that you can fix everything, but you can’t,” she tells Sydney Morning Herald a few days back. “The drinking and trying different things. The drinking part really got me. I remember talking to him recently and said ‘remember that time in Stuttgart you were drinking in the cafeteria’?”
The two women Kyrgios has been closest to in the past, his grandmother Johannah Foster and mother Nill, have shaped his life in many ways. His reactions to seismic events involving them also explains some of his temperamental streaks.
It’s early morning and the 4-year old Kyrgios is sleeping next to his mother when he is woken up by an alarming sight. The mother was having a terrible spasmodic fit.
“For a child to see their mum like that … he was the only one in the bed with me. It freaked him out so bad. He was sleeping next to me. It was my first fit. “He didn’t know what was going on. He started screaming and running down the hallway to find his dad. George didn’t know what was going on. I think it traumatised Nick.”
Her white blood cells count is 12 times that of an average person which means the body is constantly fighting non-existing bacteria. Ever since, he has always worried about her health. Part of the reason he packed up tennis in the pandemic was because of her.
“My kidneys are reaching very close to the end of their life. It’s [her white-blood cells condition] why a lot of my organs have been damaged. It’s why Nick is scared for me to be on my own. She has booked one kidney from her husband. “It’s what it is. There are people who have bigger problems than me,” she told SMH a few days back. “Nick is worried. He’s always thinking if I’m going to be alright.”
“It was heartbreaking [to see him get bad press in the initial years]. Because I wanted to guard him from all the negativity. How do you do that? Because some of them were racist, terrible.”
Australia’s Olympic swimming champion and former politician Dawn Fraser once told on air that he should “go back to the country where your mother came from”.
Nill was 12 when her actress mother who had royal family connections in Malaysia fell in love with an Aussie and moved to Australia. Initially excited about the flight travel and holiday, she was shocked when she realised it was going to be a permanent move. “It was the 70’s and racism was in Australia,” she tells a radio channel. She grew up to be a busy successful software engineer and for a while, Nick, the youngest of her kids, grew up with her mother-in-law Juliannah Foster.
Juliannah would take him to the trainings, fuss over him, and in return, he would hide her smoking habits from his parents. In 2015, when she died, Nick’s world came crumbling down. He felt that tennis had taken him away from her, during her last couple of years and he grew even more disenchanted with the sport.
“I didn’t really want to play anymore and I didn’t really feel as if I had the drive. I didn’t have the fire in my belly anymore. I lost my grandma, she was my best friend. She was probably my biggest drive into playing tennis, she put all of that time into my career and when she passed away and I didn’t see her as much as I wanted last year, I kind of blamed it on tennis,” he told CNN. “I felt like it kind of took me away from, you know, the things that really mattered to me and I was just losing motivation.”
Earlier this year, he posted an emotional insta post, talking about the dark times of the past, his mental issues, and even a pic where he had harmed himself – his left hand is swathed in bandages.
His anger issues has made him one of the unwitting philanthropists in the tennis circuit – the fines that run into thousands of dollars (“800 grand,” he reckons) are given away by the Tour to the development of deserving younger players. The world has seen his blues manifest itself in myriad ways on the court. Tantrums, wrecking-racquets, kicking chairs, engaging verbals with the crowd and on and so forth.
He has a foundation now to help the underprivileged kid and invests lots of his emotional energy into it, he says. Once he saw what his state did to his father and realised his family cared deeply for him, he changed. The girlfriend who came into his life at this point helped him get out of the mental rut. She is the one, he says, who encourages him to talk about the issues, help people who are facing similar issues, take control, and be happier. “Now I enjoy walking with my girlfriend … Once you get into a cycle of drinks and drugs, it piles up.”
You can’t enjoy breakfast, coffee with friends, or go to the beach.. you feel like a zombie the whole time.”
A zombie who could still play great tennis. The man who beat Roger Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in their first meetings. The man who has beat Nadal and Djokovic twice. The man who says he knows how to win.
Winning has always mattered to him. “I just hate losing, I can’t handle it” is his common refrain in any interview. Yet, he once famously tanked a match in Shanghai. It’s worth a peek at YouTube to see the brazenness. At one point, he gently taps his serve across and starts to walk off court without even seeing where the ball landed. “I would do it again as it’s one of the greatest tanks in history,” he laughed recently. “It did help me to plan my schedule better and not play too much.”
With the inner sanctum in control, feeling more peaceful with his life than he has probably felt in years, Nick Kyrgios won’t be an easy opponent for Djokovic. He might throw a tantrum or two, mutter abuses to himself, jabber to his opponent, but now it isn’t coming from as dark a place as it once did.
Interestingly, he can also use it as a convenient mask to throw off opponents. A month ago, in that podcast, he brought up a past game with Djokovic. He talks about how his antics was upsetting Djokovic who wasn’t used to it. “I was like talking in the change of ends, talking to myself while walking all the way. He would look back and be like, “this guy has so many loose screws!” When he misses the ball, I would be like, ‘there it is!’ little things like that. And he would side-eye me and I am like I am right where I want to be. Because If I don’t do that my chance of winning goes down immensely. If I try to be professional and out class him, that’s not going to happen. Classy and Kyrgios don’t go together! But I know how to win.”