After respectfully swatting away a few questions about tennis with little interest, Nick Kyrgios smiles when you pose the idea of a game of “regret or do-it-again”.
Sitting in his Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee jersey after practice this week, at which he smashed and flung his racquet into the fence, a tired Kyrgios comes to life.
“Sit out the US Open – regret or do it again?” the Herald asks.
“Do it again. 100 per cent,” Kyrgios fires back. “I would not trade this time I’ve had at home for anything, really.”
How about calling Boris Becker a donut? “I’d do it again. I’d do it again right now,” he says smiling at a couple members of his stable watching on from under the shade of the Canberra Tennis Centre locker room.
Take on Kitty Chiller? “Oh I’d do it again,” he says without hesitation. “I just thought it was a bit laughable.
“She got so defensive when I just stated a fact that she came 14th in her triathlon race. Then she lost it and went, ‘Oh he’s not coming.’ It was just a bit of joke. I’d do it again.”
The infamous Shanghai Masters tank job of 2016? ” I’d do it again because I think that was one of the greatest tanks of all time,” he says jokingly before taking a moment to reflect on the significance of the 2016 meltdown that saw him fined $25,000 and suspended for eight weeks.
“Nah, that one I would do again because it made me very aware that I would stay away from that tournament in the future. I knew that tournament wasn’t for me. It was at the back end of the year, I’d been on the road for too long.
“I knew that I almost reached my mental capacity of going out there and playing at a high level. I knew that by that time I needed to call it and come home and refresh for the Aussie summer. I actually would do it again, because it was a massive stepping stone to me managing my schedule better.”
Then there’s the on-court “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend”sledge at Stan Wawrinka in 2015, but it’s probably best we don’t delve into his cheeky response. You know, changing perceptions and all.
Kyrgios is a man of few regrets. He doesn’t care for the opinions of those he doesn’t care about. At least not any more. But in asking what was originally assumed to be an innocuous question, you see a side to the 25-year-old that gets lost in the bad boy bravado some people refuse to see past.
See a sports psychologist? “Yeah … I regret that,” he says.
Since 2016, in an attempt to unlock a champion within, those around him have encouraged Kyrgios to seek help. He’s done so, many times. But the more he searched for answers, the deeper the questions became and so began a spiral into depression.
“I feel like everything that I have been told by one of those people was completely incorrect,” Kyrgios says.
“I got myself out of this, to be honest. I got myself out of what I was going through. I regret that. They just put a lot of things in my head that just weren’t … I just regret that.”
As all of Australia turned their attention to Kyrgios at the start of last summer, the tennis player was heading for the exit doors.
In a stunning admission, Kyrgios has revealed he was on the verge of quitting the sport, such was the toll his maligned career had taken on his wellbeing.
“I was actually seeing a psychologist before the ATP Cup earlier this year and I was thinking maybe it was time for me to just take a year off,” Kyrgios recalled.
“Maybe just work on myself and try and get to a place where I was just happy and doing other things. I couldn’t look at a tennis court. I had no happy feelings. I had no desire to be out there. I had no motivation. I had no need for growth out there. I was just going through the motions.
“It wasn’t making me happy. If anything it was decreasing my energy. It was a negative impact on my life. I was like ‘this doesn’t mean I have to stop completely but maybe it’s time to take a break and take a step back and get in touch with other things’.”
Kyrgios was at Indian Wells in California in March when he confided in close friend and US tennis player Jack Sock about his potential exit from the tour. Then the world changed forever.
“I said to him ‘maybe this is a good time’,” Kyrgios recalls. “Obviously it’s unfortunate circumstances but maybe it’s a good time to get home and get back to the basics. It’s done wonders for him, too. I know multiple amount of tennis players who were struggling because you just get caught with all the expectation and pressure. You’re not living a normal life. It’s a massive reset.
“This time has been perfect. I’ve had it off where I can completely reset and dabble in a couple of areas where my passion was, be back in my community, be back in my home and just get a complete reset. That’s what I was thinking about doing.”
There’s a tattoo of the number 74 on the inside of Kyrgios’ middle finger that acts as a reminder of the price of fame. It’s a tribute to his late grandmother, Julianah Foster, who died at the age of 74 just days after Kyrgios’ 2014 giant-killing run at Wimbledon.
But the death of the woman who used to bet packets of Sao biscuits with her personal carer when her grandson took the court hurt even more considering Kyrgios’ decision not to travel to Albury to visit her in her final days.
“Basically the last three years of her life when she was struggling, I didn’t see her at all,” Kyrgios said. “It wasn’t easy. Then you get the news and you start to regret all the travelling and being away. Like really? What were you doing that was so important? You know what I mean? I was never home. I never had the luxury of pretty much every other tennis player. They can lose a match and fly to their home or catch a train to their home if they’re in Europe. I didn’t have that luxury.
“As I grow older and experience more and do more, I actually take tennis – not less seriously – but I don’t carry such a weight. I don’t really care about if I lose a match. It kind of brushes off quite easily now. I know what really means something to me. Tennis is just my job, really. It gives me a platform to do other things I want to do, and that’s how I look at it.”
In an interview with The New York Times before the US Open in 2016, Kyrgios declared that he would retire from the sport by the age of 27.
“Absolute max,” he said.
Kyrgios turns 27 in 17 months and he is quick to point out: “I qualify for my players’ pension now.”
So as he prepares to make his comeback to tennis at January’s Australian Open after 300 days in the wilderness, one only wonders if it will double as the beginning of the Nick Kyrgios farewell tour.
“At the start of my career when I was about 15 or 16, I always used to say ‘If I make it I don’t want to play past 27 or 28,’ ” Kyrgios said.
“Look, I took all my rehab for granted. I took all my gym sessions and that [for granted]. All my coaches will tell you the same thing. I always made a joke about it but it’s not such a joke any more. I get sore, my body is sore.
“But I feel I still have plenty more in the tank. I could play past that if I wanted to. We’ll see. There’s always a question mark. Someone could call it tomorrow, you know what I mean? Something can happen where you don’t want to play any more. I wouldn’t say I’m putting a number on it at the moment.”
Kyrgios has often felt he doesn’t belong. And it was only further complicated by some of the advice he received trying to unlock the potential that many predicted would one day see him become a grand slam champion. But, for Kyrgios, success isn’t measured in titles, showing greater pride in remaining true to himself than the trophies he has won throughout his career.
“People always tell me ‘oh you’ll have regrets’, but I actually love the way my career has gone,” he said. “I’ve done it completely my way. I’ve proved everyone wrong that said I couldn’t do it this way. I feel like I’ve actually given people a lot of hope that there’s another pathway to do it.
“I don’t really feel like I have anything else to prove. I’ve beaten pretty much every player on the tour, and I just do it my own way. That’s it.”
His way has often attracted criticism, including from former Olympian Dawn Fraser, whose words during the 2015 Wimbledon Championships only added to Kyrgios’ concerns that he didn’t fit into an “old, white, traditional sport”.
“I’ve definitely dealt with racism. One of our most bright athletes told me to go back to where I came from,” Kyrgios said about Fraser’s remarks.
“I was born in Australia. I was raised here. I deal with racism all the time. I’m definitely coloured. In the States I’ve had numerous people come up to me and say, ‘You’re representing us.’ I feel like I’m representing a lot of people all the time.
“I deal with it every day. When I’m driving, some tradies yell out racial slurs. I don’t really take it to heart or anything, but I deal with it every day.”
As for how he plans to deal with his rendezvous with Novak Djokovic in January after spending some of his tennis hibernation attacking him on social media?
“I wouldn’t expect them to be confrontational or anything,” he said. “They tend to have five or six team guys around them that do everything for them.”
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald