The time was 4pm, 27 hours before Nick Kyrgios was due to play his opening match and three minutes before he confirmed he would not. The announcement on the PA that “Nick Kyrgios is on his way to the main media conference room” was so unanticipated that journalists had to run to get there before he did.
You never know what you will get with Kyrgios, but 11th-hour withdrawals have become a theme of his non-existent 2023 season. It started with the United Cup, when his Australia teammates were informed 10 minutes before their joint press conference in Sydney that not only would he not be there but would not be playing any part in the competition.
That was an ankle problem, sustained late last year during an exhibition tournament in Dubai, which also forced him out of the second Adelaide International warm-up event the following week. Perhaps because it is Kyrgios, the authenticity of the injury was treated with suspicion, to the point that his manager, Daniel Horsfall, hoped the doubters “now realise the injury is genuine”.
Now, on the eve of his match at the Australian Open, it is the knee. But this time there was no room for doubt because Kyrgios had brought with him a press conference chaperone – his physiotherapist. Here was Will Maher, his personal fact-checker with the medical parlance to prove it. We were furnished with mentions of the “lateral meniscus” and a “parameniscal cyst”, even a “gruesome” drainage procedure he underwent last week. Kyrgios subsequently shared a photo of the bloody gunge that was extracted: see Appendix 3 on Instagram for supplementary material.
Maher did a good chunk of the talking, too. He made it clear his patient’s small meniscus tear could have become “much more complicated” and adversely affect his game in the longer term had he attempted to play here.
The cause is unknown, but Kyrgios had “described discomfort” over the past fortnight, which prompted the revealing MRI. They had used the exhibition match against Novak Djokovic on Friday night as a fitness gauge; he “didn’t pull up great” and became more sore with each training session thereafter.
Kyrgios said he had hope right up until Monday when a hitting session with his doubles partner and good friend Thanasi Kokkinakis made the decision for him and Maher. “He pushed me around the court a little bit,” he said. “That was more of a realistic hit of the intensity that was coming. It was easier to make the call today.”
He was “devastated” to be pulling out of one of the most important tournaments of his career, a year after the 2022 Open springboarded his rise up the rankings and run to the Wimbledon final.
It made for a decent PR exercise, particularly considering Kyrgios was already in the news, targeted by Victoria police after a photo surfaced of him riding an electric scooter through Melbourne’s streets without a helmet. The 27-year-old’s divisive brand is no more damaged than it was yesterday.
If there is another party suffering it is undoubtedly the Australian Open, which has already been ravaged by high-profile withdrawals and retirements, including Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, Serena and Venus Williams, Carlos Alcaraz, Roger Federer and, most recently, another local hope in Ajla Tomljanovic.
This year was supposed to mark the happy slam’s return to normality after two tournaments upended by Covid-19 and last year’s Djokovic deportation saga. Kyrgios was the box-office entry, especially given his 2022 doubles exploits alongside Kokkinakis and his singles form. His absence arguably represents the biggest setback yet.
Last year, he was ranked outside the top 100 and was still the main attraction. Twelve months later, he is the world No 21 and nothing has changed. He is this grand slam’s most sellable product, the only guaranteed hook for the casual fan. His hit-and-giggle with Djokovic last week sold out in 58 minutes. Kyrgios retweeted that news along with a sarcastic remark about his perceived “arrogance” and referred to himself in the third person.
That in itself was a bit arrogant, but it is partly why the John Cain Arena would have been full to the brim on Tuesday had he opened his campaign against Roman Safiullin as scheduled. Safiullin will never be so glad to have been relegated to Court 8 for a new tie with the American lucky loser, Denis Kudla.
The lateness of Kyrgios’s withdrawal may well engender criticism. Had he made the call earlier, that, too, may have been censured. “There’s always outside noise, especially with me,” he said. “Seeing people, past players, saying ‘he’s doing his own thing’.
“I’m dealing with my problems and this was something I was just dealing with, as well as managing expectation, trying to get my body right, trying to feel good about my game.”
There is a beautifully telling moment in Netflix’s much-hyped fly-on-the-wall documentary, Break Point, when Kyrgios is introduced via an old home movie. He is nine, wearing a cape and a helmet and dancing like he means it. Until he suddenly stops still, cracks a grin and gives us the finger.
Eighteen years later, even without his helmet, there is still a sense Kyrgios is always but a moment away from giving us the finger. Some love him for it, some definitively do not. But many, regardless of their views, want to see him play. It is a shame this very real injury has ensured we will not.