Nick Kyrgios is having a filtered coffee over ice at a Venice breakfast joint.
No food for him, though. He’s not a big breakfast guy anyway, and he is going on a hike in the mountains above Malibu later and doesn’t want to feel full. He’s been in Los Angeles for a month, doing some commentary at The Tennis Channel, filming interviews with a handful of other renegade athletes and celebrities for a new “video podcast”.
Here in southern California, he can walk the streets of Venice, or along the promenade by the beach in Santa Monica, or show up at an LA Lakers NBA game without the hassles of his Australian homeland.
“I don’t really go days here without people coming up, say hello, stuff like that,” he says, “but then, you know, they let you go about your business.”
He also has another big project cooking — a deal with OnlyFans, the subscription social-media platform best known for featuring self-made pornography now trying to broaden its appeal by signing joint ventures with bold-face names who want to make money from their content rather than just sharing it on Instagram. He promises he has no plans to become a porn star, though he flashes a devilish grin when his manager shows one picture with the back of his shorts pulled down slightly.
“Behind the scenes,” he explains. “Relationship stuff.”
Anything missing from this portfolio? Like, maybe, tennis?
Not for Kyrgios. And not for another few more months, at least. His latest ailment in a year filled with them is ligament damage to his right wrist that required surgery in October. Nearly two months later, he still greets you with a left-handed fist bump rather than a righty handshake. Cranking 130mph serves and pasting lines with that nasty, whipping, curling forehand seems a ways away.
Kyrgios being Kyrgios — the sport’s most enigmatic and beguiling player, a “tennis genius” in the words of Goran Ivanisevic, Novak Djokovic’s coach and himself a Wimbledon finalist (and winner) — he’s actually totally OK with that. Has been for quite a while, in fact.
“I played a full year last year, no injuries; had great results, had a great year,” Kyrgios says, wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie with a picture of Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle on it. “I barely played this year, two surgeries, and now still, I would probably say they’re both equally as fine, which is crazy. Most tennis players would be like, ‘This was just depressing’. People would be struggling, they would be like, ‘What do I do? Who’s my identity?’. This year, it’s been equally as enjoyable as last year. That’s just my personality and how different it is. That’s the crazy thing.”
This is not how the plot was being drawn up 12 months ago after a startling season.
That campaign included the men’s doubles title at the Australian Open, the singles final at Wimbledon, the singles title at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., and the quarter-finals of Indian Wells and the U.S. Open.
Most importantly, he was happy, newly in love, and seemed to have put his years of depression, self-abuse and heavy drinking behind him as he became one of the biggest attractions in the sport, a tennis spectacle drawing fans that had never been interested in tennis before. He’d even befriended Novak Djokovic, his polar opposite and one of his biggest critics.
His behavior could still veer toward the boorish. A thrown racket nearly careened into a ball boy. Chair umpires penalized him for any number of offenses and he sometimes engaged in jawing matches. But he had also figured out how to use his tempestuousness strategically in the psychological warfare with opponents that is so much a part of the game.
He drove Stefanos Tsitsipas mad during the third round of Wimbledon, pushing Tsitsipas to go head-hunting instead of focusing on winning points and games. Kyrgios won in four rowdy sets. Tsitispas called Kyrgios a bully. Kyrgios called Tsitsipas “soft”.
The drama was irresistible. As the new season dawned, a dialed-in Kyrgios figured to be the most dangerous player in the game and a magic bullet for a sport looking to appeal to new and younger audiences.
Didn’t happen. Injuries. Burnout. Kyrgios played just one match this year, a straight-sets loss in Stuttgart in June to Wu Yibing.
Maybe this was Kyrgios’ body psychosomatically shutting down after a 2022 season that had left him mentally depleted and wondering how the all-time greats such as Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had survived on the tennis treadmill for so many years.
“I just don’t think I could do three seasons like that in a row. I wouldn’t be able to play anymore,” he said. “I was spent after I got home after the U.S. Open, I was cooked. I was so mentally fried. I was just so tired. Physically, I felt fine but just mentally, I was over it. So maybe this year is a counterbalance.”
Kyrgios’ left knee began swelling in the weeks leading up to the Australian Open. He withdrew before his first match and had surgery to remove a cyst and repair a tear in the lateral meniscus. The recovery, which was expected to take eight weeks, took longer than expected.
Then, while training for Wimbledon in Mallorca, Spain, a pain in his right wrist, which has come and gone ever since a 2015 fall during a match against Grigor Dimitrov, grew intense. He dropped his racket, and hasn’t played since, pulling out of Wimbledon before his first match. He wasn’t exactly heartbroken, having told reporters the weekend before the tournament began that he had been dreading his return to the grind of his pro tennis existence, all those months on the road far from home and the intense scrutiny that left him depleted.
Doctors initially advised rest and physical therapy. Further examination revealed ligament damage that required what his agent, Stuart Duguid, described as a “minor procedure” eight weeks ago, with a recovery expected to stretch through the first months of 2024.
Kyrgios said he hasn’t played since dropping his racket on that Spanish practice court in the spring.
“It’s been a minute,” he says, but he has no doubt his innate sense for the game has not gone away. “I still feel like if you put a racket in my hand it wouldn’t feel foreign at all.”
With a long layoff and a blank schedule looming, Duguid asked Kyrgios if he had given any thought to what he wanted to do after his playing days were over. Kyrgios, who has done his share of sparring with the media, said he and his manager Daniel Horsfall, also a close friend, had discussed his desire to do television work — commentary, an interview show, finding ways to share the story of his unlikely rise and at times tortured existence at the top of the tennis world.
“Why are you waiting?” Duguid asked Kyrgios. “Why not start to dip your toe in that world now?”
It was a line of thinking that Kyrgios said was very un-Australian and part of the reason he sometimes prefers America to his native land.
“I feel more respected here,” he says, adding that Australians “don’t expect athletes to do anything else but play their sport, which is really weird. I definitely see myself coming back at some stage and playing at a high level again. But because of how intense last year was for me, this was a year to just balance it out”.
Indeed, last month Kyrgios was behind a desk at The Tennis Channel’s Santa Monica studios providing analysis of the ATP Tour Finals in Turin, Italy.
“Total pro,” Ken Solomon, the chief executive at The Tennis Channel said of Kyrgios. “On time. Actually, early. Well dressed. Did his homework, and gave insights that you can only get from a player at that level who knew the competition in a way few others do.”
Kyrgios does not disagree. He is a fan of the commentary work of Jim Courier, the former world No 1 and Tennis Channel star. Others, not so much.
“Sometimes it’s hard to watch these old heads kind of break down the game all the time for new fans. It’s like some of the stuff they say doesn’t make sense. Jim Courier is really good, the way he articulates things, but some of these other people, I’m just like, ‘What are you talking about?’. Like, ‘How do you know?’.”
He holds in special contempt people who argue that stars of previous eras, even all-time greats such as Pete Sampras, could survive at the top of the hyper-athletic, modern power game.
“The game was so slow back then,” he says. “I’ve watched Boris Becker and I’m not saying they weren’t good in their time, but to say that they would be just as good now, it’s absurd,” he says. “A big serve back then was like 197 to 200 (km per hour — about 122mph). People like me, we serve 220 consistently, to corners. It’s a whole different ball game.”
Now Kyrgios is rolling…
“I’m not saying they wouldn’t have found their way,” he says of the old-timers. “But serve and volley, to do it all the time now, you need to be serving 220, because if you serve anything less than 220, bro, Djokovic eats you alive. He eats you alive. Bro, Lleyton Hewitt destroyed Sampras one year at the U.S. Open. That was the first prototype of someone who could return serve. (Note to Kyrgios, Andre Agassi had a pretty good service return, too.)
“He made Sampras look like sh*t. And what would Djokovic do to someone like Sampras? It would be a cleanup. If Hewitt was doing it, Djokovic would destroy him. He would eat him alive.”
More recently he’s been filming a series of episodes of an interview show called Good Trouble. Naomi Osaka, Frances Tiafoe, boxing’s Mike Tyson, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and Jay Shetty, the author and podcaster, have sat with him for an initial season that Duguid says will drop on YouTube early next year and hopefully attract a distribution partner for a second season.
“It’s full-on — 30 minutes of one-on-one intimacy talking about their struggles and making it through that,” Kyrgios says. “That’s my project.” It’s part of an ongoing effort to get people to know him beyond the artifice they see on the tennis court. He recalls a recent interview with Piers Morgan, when the British broadcaster admitted to Kyrgios that, before meeting him, he hated him. “I was like, ‘You didn’t even know me at all’. Crazy.”
Then there is the OnlyFans deal he’s been gathering content for.
(He and Horsfall are at first somewhat horrified that I need them to explain just what OnlyFans is. But they do not hold it against me. “I love that,” he tells me.)
“Everyone initially will think that maybe Nick’s getting into the porn industry,” Horsfall says. “Then they’ll find out, well, actually, it’s just (going) behind the scenes.”
This is where his followers will get the most intimate look into his soul, his struggles with mental health, and his relationship with Costeen Hatzi, a social media influencer in her own right and interior designer.
There’s Nick in the gym, at home with Hatzi, on a hike, giving wellness tips.
Keily Blair, OnlyFans’ chief executive, said in a statement that Kyrgios, like her company, was “a disruptor, so it’s great to see him joining our platform, finding new ways to share his content and express himself. We can’t wait to see what he has in store for his fans”.
Kyrgios said he plans to ask followers what they want to see from him and then deliver on that.
At this point, it’s probably worth noting that there are an awful lot of people who would really like to see Kyrgios play more tennis. There are not a lot of players who hit trick shots through the legs mid-rally to throw off an opponent’s rhythm. Few have more pure talent and can make a tennis ball dance the way Kyrgios can.
But tennis can get complicated for Kyrgios. He will play again, he says, but he is not shy about sharing the view that the 11-month tennis season is an exhausting slog no elite athlete should be subject to. If Saudi Arabia, or some other deep-pocketed investor, ever tried to organize a barnstorming league for the top 16 players that required far less of his time and energy, he is there for it.
“I would have been the first one to jump off,” he says. “I would have gone. I would have just let the ATP ship sink.”
He doesn’t understand how just a moderately talented NBA player such as Kyle Kuzma of the Washington Wizards could sign a four-year contract this summer worth $100million — nearly as much as Roger Federer earned in prize money ($130m) during his entire career.
“He’s not even a top 50 player,” Kyrgios said of Kuzma.
He is firmly against merging the men’s and women’s tours. “If we’re merging, you merge the draws, you merge everything,” he says.
He even has some issues with equal prize money at the Grand Slams, since the women play best-of-three-sets matches while the men play best-of-five. “I played for four hours at the A.O. (Australian Open), then (Elina) Svitolina played for like 40 minutes and we both got paid the same,” he says.
He says he loves watching Coco Gauff, Serena Williams, Osaka. They and a select few others, such as Iga Swiatek, would be valuable assets for such a barnstorming male/female tennis show if it ever happened. “But why is tennis the only sport that deals with this stuff?” he asks. “If the WNBA said, ‘Let’s merge’, the NBA would ridicule them.”
Add it to the list of things that make the life of a professional tennis player excessively complex to Kyrgios.
If playing tennis for a living was as simple as going out on the court and playing and competing and having fun, he’d be back on the tour in a heartbeat. There are few things better than pulling off a trick shot or hitting a clean winner against the best players in the world and hearing the roars of a packed stadium descend over him.
But because of his talent and the spectacles that his matches often become, he attracts an outsized degree of attention whenever he competes.
Fans love to celebrate his show and his victories. A few consecutive wins whet the Australian nation’s appetite for the moment when he puts it all together and delivers on the promise of his skills. However, when he loses his temper or falls in matches, critics revert to the narrative of so much talent wasted on an unserious mind. He then picks up his phone, heads down the rabbit hole of social media commentary, and tennis becomes misery once more.
“I’m just acting all the time,” Kyrgios says. “It’s exhausting.”
He will be back. He’s sure of it. “Somewhere next year” is the target, he says.
Still a year and a half shy of turning 30, he should have several good seasons left if he can get healthy. He will not set a deadline like he did earlier this year with his knee and rush to meet it, though. The knee never got to where he needed it to, and maybe that ended up putting more stress on his wrist.
He has spoken with Osaka, another player who has struggled with mental health and who gave birth to her first child in July, about her time away from the sport. He has watched her plot her comeback and taken notes.
Like Osaka, Kyrgios wants to spend enough time on the practice court to regain his confidence. Then he will set himself to the work of getting mentally prepared to commit to the tennis life and all the ambivalence it stirs in him.
“It’s like, are you ready to go on a four-month trip?” he said. “I won’t come back until I’m ready to do something like that.”
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)