Nick Kyrgios and the mystery of temperament

Nick Kyrgios last year

Nick Kyrgios last year

So The New York Times Magazine’s US Open Special is basically a cover story on bad boy du jour Nick Kyrgios, pictured biting on the cross he wears around his neck and, oh, you can imagine the posts in response – not just about the cross but on Nick in general. 

But the cross is an interesting metaphor here. Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16: 24-36)

What indeed. Nick’s rather tiny cross is his ambivalence toward tennis. He’d rather be playing basketball. Judging from the responses to the article, Nick would seem to be an obnoxious young man not worth the time of day, let alone a Times cover story. But to me, the profile raised many intriguing questions:

Why isn’t he playing basketball? If he’s any kind of fan, he might know the story of Michael Jordan, perhaps the most rarified of hoop stars. Jordan retired from the NBA in 1993 to become a baseball player, but it was too late. The neurological connections needed for baseball should’ve been formed when he was a tween – see the book “Why Michael Couldn’t Hit and Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports” – and he soon went back to the NBA. (By the way, this is the single greatest argument for learning all you can – sports, languages, musical instruments – while you’re young.)

So why didn’t Kyrgios pursue basketball as a child? The article says his parents – Greek and Malaysian immigrants to Australia – weren’t pushy tennis parents, yet they pushed him to choose tennis over basketball. Isn’t that being pushy?

But perhaps more important, might not the lure of basketball lie in the fact that he plays it for fun not for work? If he were actually part of the grind that is the NBA, might not he come to regard it the way he does tennis?

As for tennis, is it possible to be good, even great at something you don’t love or much like? Being a world-class athlete isn’t like being a businessman. You have to have extraordinary talent. But can that talent trump a lack of passion? Consider Andre Agassi, who in his harrowing, howlingly funny memoir “Open” states point blank that he hated tennis. Yet he rose to the No. 1 ranking and won eight Slams, playing at the end in terrible pain. John McEnroe, another great, once said he never had the passion for playing that Jimmy Connors had.

To succeed, you need the four Ts – talent, training, technique and temperament. The dyspeptic journalist H.L. Mencken said Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most outstanding presidents, had a second-rate mind but a first-class temperament. I disagree but the point is well-taken. Doing something for which you have the gift but not the mindset, personality and desire is almost as bad as doing something you love for which you have no talent. (See the ballet-obsessed Zelda Fitzgerald and Florence Foster Jenkins, the socialite opera singer who sang – badly – and is the subject of the new, eponymous film starring Meryl Streep.)

Did McEnroe and Agassi lack the temperament for tennis? Does Kyrgios? Tennis, like most sports and the performing arts, would seem to embrace an array of temperaments from the introverts (Rafael Nadal) to the extroverts (Novak Djokovic). What all tennis players seem to have in common is a fierce individualism that serves them well in a most singular sport in which you must sometimes play not only your opponent but the crowd and yourself.

It’s possible that McEnroe’s and Agassi’s real feelings toward tennis were blind spots for them. I think they cared for the sport more than they knew. (They both still play.) But clearly there were aspects of the game that they hated, which is true of most careers, even a dream job.

Unlike most of the posters on The New York Times cover story, I think the jury is still out on Nick, who at 21 and ranked 16 is still wildly unformed. I’m old enough to remember the idolized Roger Federer as a teenager. Fed – now sidelined with injuries but still haunting his fans and the sport -- was an emotional wreck. Nole – coming off a weak (for him) summer after a brilliant winter and spring that saw his apotheosis at the French Open – was something of a teenage punk. Andy Murray – on the ascent (again) after another Wimbledon title and Olympic gold in men’s singles play and reconnecting with no-nonsense coach Ivan Lendl – is still trying to get a handle on negative emotional energy. The only one of the Big Four who seemed grownup from the beginning was Rafael Nadal, who took two golds in men’s doubles and mixed doubles in Rio despite a sore left wrist – but even he can be passive-aggressive on the court with his obsessive-compulsive antics.

The point is, We humans are complex creatures. Yet we persist, resigned in the knowledge that no one gets every gift or reward and comforted by the realization that we are more than our worst day.

The Big Four matured and ripened – becoming champion players, entering into adult relationships and, in most cases, marrying and fathering children.

The same may happen for Kyrgios – in the Nick of time.