So far, so good for Nick Kyrgios. The highest-ranked Australian, one week before his home grand slam, won his first title of the season on Sunday by clinching the Brisbane International.
After a wobbly start against American Ryan Harrison in the final, where Kyrgios faced two break points in his opening service game, it was smooth-sailing from then on as the 22-year-old from Canberra closed out the match 6-4, 6-2 to lift the trophy.
Kyrgios’ performance in Brisbane, particularly his victory over Bulgarian world No 3 Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals, will only serve to heighten expectations ahead of the Australian Open.
In one respect, that is no surprise. Kyrgios is one of the most gifted tennis players in the world and has proved on numerous occasions to be more than a match for the very best. Indeed, he is only the second player, after compatriot Lleyton Hewitt, to beat Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic in his first meetings with the superstar trio.
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The big difference between their respective accomplishments, though, is that Hewitt was at the top of his game as Nadal, Federer and Djokovic were making their way up, Kyrgios conquered them all as a youngster when they were established superpowers.
What has held Kyrgios back from reaching the very top so far has been a lack of consistency borne out of an unreliable temperament. Injury setbacks have contributed, too, but an inability – or perhaps refusal – to dig deep when faced with adversity has been evident throughout Kyrgios’ career to date.
It is why, after a 2017 season that saw a number of elite players tumble down the rankings due to various injury layoffs, Kyrgios remained hovering around the top 20. Meanwhile Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem all took advantage to rise to the respective spots behind Nadal and Federer.
And with all due respect to Belgium’s world No 7 David Goffin and American world No 8 Jack Sock, who both should be applauded for their climb up the rankings in the absence of previously higher-ranked players, Kyrgios should be comfortably ahead of both in tennis’ pecking order.
Kyrgios is moving in the right direction at the start of the 2018 season – his Brisbane triumph is expected to move him up four places to No 17 – and he is certainly making the right noises.
"I felt good all week. I felt right at home," Kyrgios said after winning the Brisbane title. "Every time I stepped out here you gave me such great support. I love playing in front of you guys even though sometimes it may not seem that way. But I do. I really appreciate it."
With four ATP Tour titles to his name, Kyrgios has proved he has the ability and fortitude to go the distance over a one-week, best-of-three-sets tournament. Kyrgios’ next task is to show he can transfer those performances on the biggest stages.
Over a two-week, best-of-five-sets grand slam – when the pressure and stakes are higher – Kyrgios has so far fallen short.
At just 22-years-old, the Australian has plenty of time to get it right. His game is already at a level to win majors; it is up to him to develop the mental strength to match.
Perhaps the 2018 Australian Open is his next best chance to make the breakthrough his talent deserves. A number of leading players are either out with injury or will make late calls on their participation. In contrast, Kyrgios is fit, in form and seemingly in a good frame of mind.
His opponent in Sunday’s Brisbane final, Harrison, probably said it best: "His level is very high. I think that we all know how well he can play. He brought a very high level today, and playing out here in Australia, he's obviously very motivated and very comfortable.
“He's going to be a danger to beat anybody that he plays whenever he plays like that. I think that it's nothing new, though, for him. He knows that and he knows he has the level."