There’s Enough Here For A Battalion Of Sports Psychologists….
Sam Querry and Nick Kyrgios’ paths to their semi-final match yesterday at the Abiertto Mexicano Telcel tourney in Acapulco, an ATP 500 level event, contain enough fodder to keep a phalanx of sports psychologists busy for weeks.
While it’s not a tournament Querry’s played consistently throughout his career, you have to believe he showed up this year with good memories. Twenty-nine years old and currently ranked 40, but with a career high of 17 (2011), Querry made the semis in 2016, losing to the eventual champion, Dominc Thiem. On his way there, in the quarters, he’d beaten Kei Nishikori when the Knish was ranked 6th in the world. Previously he played the Mexican tournament in 2010 (lost to Fernando Gonzalez, first round), and 2014 (Kevin Anderson, second round).
There’s clearly something to the idea of players doing well at tournaments where they’ve had some success. Following up on last year’s run to the semis, this year he’s beaten Kyle Edmund (ranked 45), David Goffin (#11, but just 1 week out of the top ten), last year’s bête noir Thiem (#9), and just yesterday Kyrgios (#17), who was coming off his huge win over world #2 Novak Djokovic.
On the other side of the net, a man who needs no introduction: Curious Nick Kyrgios. (h/t to Brad Gllbert for the nickname, I believe) Obviously talented in the extreme, the 21 year old has both enthralled and enraged tennis fans since his 2013 debut on the pro tour. It’s been said of Kyrgios that “you can’t not watch him,” and while that is often said of train wrecks as well, there’s no doubt that what-will-Nick-do-this-match anticipation fuels as much of the attention he draws as his jawdropping shotmaking.
Most notably, Krygios drew an ATP ultimatum in the fall of 2016 for a pretty disgusting complete lack of professionalism (or common politeness) at the Shanghai Masters tournament last October, when he displayed what can only be called a virtual parody of a tank (except it was real). To make matters worse, the Aussie engaged both the umpire and fans in rudely dismissive fashion. He was fined $25,000 and suspended for 8 weeks. The ATP offered Kyrgios the option of having that reduced to 3 tournament weeks if he agreed to sessions with a sports psychologist, which he did.
In his post match interview after his win over Djokovic (7/6 7/5) Kyrgios said, “It’s what I dreamed of as a little kid, playing on these great venues against some of the greatest players in the world. I never have a problem getting up for these matches.” We can discuss whether Acapulco is a great venue or not (w/apologies to Acapulco), but beating Novak is clearly a big deal. In fact, the Aussie is the only player to have scored wins over Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic the first time he’s played them.
It’s not unfair, however, to wonder if the flip side to Kyrgios’ attitude about his match against Djokovic isn’t the immaturity he displays in so many contests against lesser lights on tour. The Shanghai debacle, for instance, happened against Mischa Zverev. At 29 years of age Zverev has been having the run of his career, there’s no doubt about it, but there’s also no doubt that Mischa is not Novak. Whatever one thinks about Nick’s outbursts, they’ve only happened against players who’re less than all-time greats. (Yes, Stan Wawrinka has 3 Big Four titles, but that doesn’t qualify him as an all-time great; discuss…..)
So when they walked out yesterday for their semi-final match both Querry and Kyrgios carried plenty of psychological baggage as well as their racquets. And boy-oh-boy did it show itself in how the match played out.
As you’ve probably read in Alex Burton’s write-up, Kyrgios started out like a house on fire: 65% first serve percentage (winning 85% of them), hitting only 7 second serves all set (won 5), and winning 77% of the points (!) when Querry had to hit a second serve. The 6/3 score belies how it played out: Kyrios was in control, full stop.
But then, at the beginning of the second set, the American stood firm. James Blake, the American former top tenner now commentating for Tennis Channel, noted that Querry was standing in a bit closer to the baseline. He was definitely still going for his shots, most especially when he rifled a backhand winner down the line as Kyrgios served at 40/15 in the first game. Sam clawed his way back to deuce, when the first crack appeared in the Aussie’s mental fortitude: a foolish attempt by Kyrgios at a drop shot, from the baseline, failed badly; it wasn’t just poorly hit, it was hit out. He followed that up with an unforced error into the net on break point, putting Querry ahead right from the get go.
Querry, whose play is normally associated more with the word “laconic” than “fiery”, had gotten his foot in the door of the second set and then pushed all the way inside. He ramped up his shotmaking, serving increasingly more decisively while not backing off from being aggressive in point construction. Meanwhile, the Aussie went into full mental retreat. Sam took the big boy approach, determined to better his 2016 results, while Nick failed to knuckle down and play solid tennis when fabulous tennis was no longer within his grasp. Mental baggage indeed. Querry turned the tables completely, and took the second set 6/1, a pretty surprising score given the difference in their rankings.
Give him his due, the Aussie made a go of it in the third and final set, eventually won by Querry 7/5. Still, Kyrgios’ inability to be Gibraltar-like against a lower ranked player was evident, and never more so than in the final game, with Nick serving at 5/6. On the 15/30 point, Kyrgios ripped a crosscourt backhand for no reason other than a junior’s-like attempt to go big, and it went wide. Querry, who conversely had demonstrated great resolve, keeping the ball in play and yet going for his shots as well, made yet another solid if unremarkabale return at 15/40, his first match point. Kyrgios tried to rock Querry on his heels with a potently hit crosscourt forehand, but the American was there and replied with a sound topspin crosscourt forehand. Kyrgios, standing 4’ inside his baseline, passively let the ball bounce, and watched it land in by a good 2 feet. He’d prayed instead of played, hoping (showboating) that the ball would be out. Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close. Game, set, match Querry.
Tennis is unique among the top professional sports, especially on television; we get to watch an individual sport where the competitors never get away from the camera. Team sport players get some bench time, golfers aren’t followed every minute of each round they play. Tennis pros are on display more than any other big time athletes, and their field of battle is mic’d, as well. Nothing escapes the fan’s eyes or ears. There’s nowhere to hide and, in singles, no one to hide behind.
The mental side of tennis is on full view. Nervous ticks, standing up to adversity, feats of great sporting bravery and total collapses are there for us to see in all their glory, or ignominy. Some players thrive in this cauldron, and we know them as athletes who, at the least, have maximized their skills and talents even if they’re not the cream of the crop. We rest assured they’ll never, ever, give anything away. Others find the mental hurdle to be the final one they can’t overcome, and they never make the main tour events. Many, perhaps most, show us varying levels of comfort with the pressure cooker that is professional tennis, often times all in one day, in one single match.
Querry and Kyrgios opened their psychological baggage today and laid out all their laundry. Kyrgios’ needs attention. Querry’s was pressed and ready to go.