By Benjamin Block
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Effort doesn’t always guarantee a positive outcome, but it does win people’s hearts.
It’s a concept that rising tennis star Nick Kyrgios hasn’t grasped. At this stage of his career he’s more of the bad-for-tennis variety than he is a “bad boy” of tennis.
But the fragile-minded 21-year-old felt the love Sunday inside Madison Square Garden, as the Australian-born Boston Celtics fanatic watched Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks take on Stephen Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. A short 24 hours later he basked in Gotham’s embrace when he took the Garden floor, himself, for the 10th annual BNP Paribas Showdown.
The exhibition served as an ideal culmination, as it married Kyrgios’s personality and penchant to entertain, and encouraged the silly on-court antics that he’s become known for.
More importantly, it was a welcome break from a topsy-turvy tournament he had last week in Acapulco, and a generally up-and-down time on tour since being suspended in October of last year.
It was about five months ago, in Shanghai, China, when Kyrgios swallowed a $41,500 fine for “tanking” a match, unsportsmanlike conduct and verbal abuse of a spectator. The suspension handed down was for eight weeks, but got reduced to three weeks upon his concession to see a sports psychologist.
But Kyrgios has not learned his lesson, as he got tangled up in another verbal exchange with a fan last week during his first round match at the Mexico Open.
After dropping the first set to Israeli challenger Dudi Sela, and on serve to start the second set, Kyrgios turned to supporting fans of his opponent and told them to, “shut the (expletive) up.”
He prevailed in that match, and days later, authoritatively beat down Novak Djokovic 7-6 (9), 7-5, in their first-ever meeting. It was a clinical performance that featured 25 aces, 41 winners, only one double fault and 14 unforced errors.
“It was one of the greatest wins of my career,” Kyrgios told WFAN.com at Central Park South’s JW Marriot Essex House on the eve before the exhibition.
Subdued and on his best behavior, he wore an Italian navy suit accented with a modest white shirt, gunmetal silk tie and black loafers.
But clearly the psychological therapy enforced by the ATP Tour hasn’t taken hold, which Kyrgios even confirmed.
“I have to do it, it’s compulsory at the moment,” he said.
In between his verbal assaults on fans, Kyrgios showed a lack of effort at the Australian Open in January, where he lost a five-set match in the second round to a lower-ranked Italian, Andreas Seppi. The early exit, which Kyrgios attributed to poor preparation and a knee injury he suffered playing basketball during his time away, elicited frothing boos from the “home town” crowd.
It also engendered a tongue-lashing from original “bad boy” of tennis and native New Yorker John McEnroe, who called the young Australian’s actions “A black eye for the sport and a black eye for him.”
Former tennis antagonists Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt were also on hand for the exhibition Monday night, and weighed in on the polarizing Kyrgios.
“I don’t agree with everything he’s done,” said the still-fiery Roddick, who will be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July.
Acknowledging that guys inside the locker room “generally like him,” Roddick admitted, “I don’t know that I can defend lack of effort and that’s something I would tell him if he was standing here.”
Hewitt, who was recently appointed as the Australian Davis Cup captain, related more to what Kyrgios has been going through. Contrary to Roddick, Hewitt attributed the antics more to youth and growing pains.
“You don’t really get taught how to prepare for situations, and you kind of learn and improve as a person and a player,” the recently retired Hewitt said.
Hewitt, who said he gets along “really well” with Kyrgios, lamented, “He’s got to work out ways that he can cope with things as well.”
Kyrgios’s age can no longer recuse his continued childish behavior on the court. A lot of self-imposed attention, but unfair pressure, has been put on a guy who hasn’t even made a semifinal of a major, let alone won one yet.
By age 21, Roddick had secured his first and only major, the 2003 US Open. And by the ripe age of 20, Hewitt had secured the top spot in the world rankings, becoming the youngest in tour history to do so.
Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, famously once said, “We don’t go on at 11:30 because we’re ready; it’s because we have to.”
Kyrgios’s tennis abilities are categorically show-time ready. He is not. But the show must go on.
Follow Benjamin on Twitter at @benjaminblock21