Kudos to Eurosport for engaging the services of Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open, a bold booking and one that has paid off.
The temperamental Australian has been doing co-commentary and player chats during the first week of his native tennis major, appearing both on Eurosport here and on ESPN in the US. He has been a breath of fresh air.
Kyrgios is, as the young people say, a vibes guy: passionate, unfiltered, able to surf on his emotions to play superlatively, but also prone to becoming overwhelmed by his feelings and crashing. These qualities have made him appointment viewing as a player, while also, perhaps, hindering him from taking the final steps to becoming a champion. On talent alone, he should have a better record than one slam final and two quarter-final appearances.
But flawless players do not necessarily make the best commentators, and Kyrgios’s blend of brashness and neediness are a watchable combination. He is paired especially well with John McEnroe, something of a kindred spirit you feel, on ESPN. Eurosport has used Kyrgios more as an occasional colour man, probably figuring that you don’t want too much of a good thing. They have him doing post-match chat with the players, under the adult supervision of Barbara Schett or another experienced broadcaster, and these have been within the acceptable bounds of banter.
He is also, thankfully, not nearly as dumb as he looks. The Kevin The Teenager-style hoodies and baseball caps hide someone who can speak thoughtfully and insightfully when the mood takes him.
His most eye-catching work this week was around Novak Djokovic, a player with whom he has had an intriguing love-hate dynamic. He was excellent on commentary explaining how Djokovic’s open stance allows him to return so well from certain parts of the court: like a lot of so-called maverick players in many sports, Kyrgios is shrewd on the technical side of the game, and it’s always instructive to hear from players who are still active at a high level. So many sports evolve at such a pace that even five years post-retirement can seem like a different era. And the commentary work is, if nothing else, keeping young master Nick off the streets. “I’m just waiting to get healthy,” he said. “I’m trying to balance this, balance my body. In the meantime, the mouth still works just fine.”
Indeed so. He has spoken about his friendship with Djokovic, telling viewers: “We speak nearly every day and we send each other memes.” I wonder if Djokovic, a supremely ruthless competitor, has identified Kyrgios as one of the few who can trouble him if he gets in a zone of focused fury and has figured out that befriending rather than antagonising the Australian is the best way to neutralise him, in the same way that one should never attempt to sledge Virat Kohli for fear of fully focusing his laser-determination.
It’s hard to imagine a friendship with a person like Djokovic being anything other than asymmetric and this odd couple puts me in mind of an exchange on the BBC athletics coverage involving Michael Johnson where it was put to the great man that Ato Boldon and Maurice Greene were training partners and how beneficial that must be to both of them. Knowing the personalities involved, Johnson witheringly said: “Well, it’s good for Maurice”. 2000 Olympics: Boldon silver, Greene gold.
Kyrgios has been a one-man cheering section for Djokovic, telling the tournament favourite that he’ll come down to courtside and do a WWE-style tag-in if Djokovic needs help sorting out his hecklers. He went in to bat for his man when commentating on the Tomás Martín Etcheverry match where Djokovic was given a time violation while serving, saying: “Not necessary, ridiculous! Just ridiculousness! It’s like they [umpires] get bored and they just want to say something instead of the score.”
While the best place for Kyrgios remains the tennis court, he has been a welcome addition to the action this week and, although you would never rule our an on-air tantrum that gets him in hot water with Ofcom, hopefully this could be the start of a long and entertaining second career in the media.