Like most people, Australian tennis phenom Nick Kyrgios thinks his mum’s home cooking is some of the best there is – and he’s had plenty of time to come to that conclusion given he’s been living back at the family home since late February, when the COVID-19 crisis really took hold.
“People tend to be biased, saying their mum’s always a good cook, but my mum is really good,” the 25-year-old tells ESPN from his bedroom adorned with various framed sports jerseys.
“We had a massive feast last night. But just being at home in my own bed, with my dog, just being comfortable in my own house [has been good].”
While many players have been braving a global pandemic as the tennis train rolls on throughout the world, the Canberra native has been relishing some time away from the tour. He says he’s been catching up with friends and family at a time when he’d normally be moving from hotel room to hotel room, city to city.
“I haven’t been home like this with my family and friends for seven years; there’s [usually] a massive block of the tennis schedule from after the Australian Open to about this time,” he says.
“I’m not taking it for granted, it’s been an amazing time at home to see my parents, siblings, and just to be home in Canberra is pretty special. Tennis is a strange sport – especially being from Australia, we’re never home. So I’m a really lucky man at the moment.”
But to say Kyrgios has been twiddling his thumbs while the rest of the tour continues to play at tournaments around the world would be wrong; aside from his usual training routines, he’s been immersing himself in some of his other passions, playing video games while streaming on Twitch, and, of course, watching basketball.
“Basketball was my first love, even before tennis. I had a basketball hoop outside my house and I’m a massive Celtics fan. I honestly just started playing basketball around the same time. I picked up a ball and it felt natural. I just love the sport. I think it’s the best sport in the world,” Kyrgios says.
And he’s had time to pay close attention to the goings-on in the NBA’s Florida bubble; his beloved Boston Celtics made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to the Miami Heat in Game 6.
“I was heartbroken when the Celtics went down to the Heat, I honestly thought that was a series we were going to take. All credit to Jimmy Butler, he was an absolute dog all playoffs, and he’s solidified himself as a superstar in the league,” Kyrgios says.
“But if [it wasn’t to be] the Celtics, the Lakers are my next team. I love Rondo. Rajon Rondo is one of my favourite players, and I thought he played a massive role in the playoffs – gave them stability and controlled the tempo.
“But I’m glad LeBron James got that ring. They always said he was doing it in a ‘weak East’ and now he went to the West, finished as the No. 1 seed and got it done, so I’m super stoked for LeBron.”
Far from a casual NBA fan, the world No. 43 is fully immersed in the competition and has been for most of his life; two years ago he collaborated with Kyrie Irving to release a hoops-tennis crossover sneaker that Kyrgios says helps “bridge the gap” between the sports, while the Aussie also revealed that he’d previously caught up with Celtics forward Gordon Hayward during a tennis tournament in Miami.
You only have to cast your mind back to January, when the world learned of the devastating news that Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna passed away in a helicopter crash, to see what an impact basketball – and Kobe – had on Kyrgios growing up.
He wore Bryant’s famous No. 8 jersey on his walk out to Rod Laver Arena for his fourth-round Australian Open match against Rafael Nadal – headphones on, wiping tears from his eyes.
“That day still weighs heavily on me. I woke up and that was the first thing I saw on my phone. Honestly, I didn’t believe it to begin with, and then it sunk in and it was just heavy,” Kyrgios recalls.
“Going out [onto the court that night], I was very worried about how I was going to perform with that weighing on my mind. What he stood for as a basketballer, always trying to get better, always trying to look to help people and get the best out of everyone, and when I wore his jersey, going out onto court was something I’ll never forget.
“I had my headphones on but I had nothing playing because I just wanted to hear the reaction, the atmosphere and I just broke down, because I was watching Kobe almost every day of my life growing up.
“It was a very sad day, but I’m glad the Lakers, LeBron, they [won the 2020 NBA Finals] for him – it fuelled everyone at that organisation.
“Even myself, when I’m having those days when I’m training or playing in that jersey – I’ve got him tattooed on my arm as well, so he’s someone I’ll never forget.”
Nick Kyrgios looks back on the day Kobe Bryant died, and how it felt wearing his jersey on court at the Australian Open.
Kyrgios says he places Bryant, James and Bulls legend Michael Jordan in the same “God tier”, and admits he’s loathed to order them as many try to do in the never-ending ‘GOAT debate’.
“I hate doing the comparisons. I know we have to do them, as people we always try and compare [LeBron and Jordan], and who has had a better career, but I think there’s a category for them alone. I think Michael, Kobe and LeBron are in that God tier where they’re just untouchables. They were all special in their own way, they all were doing different things for their team,” Kyrgios says.
“LeBron is one of the greatest of all time in all sports, I think. The things he does off the court as well as on it are so special, I don’t think we’ve ever seen that. But his consistency – he’s so underappreciated, when he has a triple double, it’s just a normal thing … and when he has a slightly off game, [the critics come].”
Dealing with critics is something LeBron and Kyrgios perhaps have in common. Analysed to within an inch of his life on the court and outspoken off it, Kyrgios has, to the amusement of some, because a vocal ‘voice of reason’ in tennis in 2020.
From his living room in the Australia’s national capital, Kyrgios was most critical of the decision to push on with June’s Adria Tour, which carried on without adequate social distancing or crowd restrictions, and, unsurprisingly, ended with four players including Novak Djokovic testing positive for the coronavirus.
Kyrgios also strongly condemned the actions of Alexander Zverev, who was filmed partying in close proximity to others while he was supposedly ‘self-isolating’ not long after.
He says he’s not one to shy away from his opinions, claiming that people “appreciate the honesty” more than anything.
“Everything I say is quite factual when I’m talking about things that have happened or on issues [in the world]. I just say it how it is, I just say what I think personally, and there are always going to be people who don’t agree, but I think people appreciate the honesty. I mean, I do when someone speaks up on an issue and they’re honest and it’s what they think,” he tells ESPN.
Despite his sometimes brash nature on social media, the Australian says he has started to “feel the warmth” from more tennis fans, something that may have stemmed from his charity work for underprivileged children, and the generous pledge to donate money to the Australian bushfire appeal for every ace sent down during the Australian summer of tennis.
He raised AU$33,800 for bushfire relief through his aces alone, and inspired many others, including athletes from other sports to make similar, generous contributions. The ‘Rally for Relief” event, of which Kyrgios was the main architect, raised nearly AU$5,000,000.
“I’ve never been one to crave being liked or anything like that. When I was a young chap, I was always very emotional when I played, and nothing’s really changed,” he admits with a wry smile.
“Whether the perception was they loved me or hated me, my stadiums are always full, TV ratings up … but this year with the bushfires, people were losing homes and lives … and so I put that tweet out that I’d donate for every ace, and it went out throughout Australia and then globally.
“I’m not looking for the media attention doing that stuff, I just realised we could help. In Canberra, we had the most toxic air in the world at one stage (due to the bushfires) and we couldn’t really go outside – it wasn’t pleasant.
“I’ve definitely felt the public perception warm to me a little more, but it didn’t drive me to do these things.”
The Australian Open was the last Grand Slam Kyrgios played, and it will likely be the next one he plays, too. Of course, Kyrgios says he misses competing, admitting it’s hard to get the same energy on the practice courts or playing video games as “going on court in front of thousands of people and playing against the best players in the world”.
“It is something I’m craving and missing. But having said that, it’s given me time to focus on some of the basics in life that I’ve maybe overlooked or just missed out on in the last couple of years in my life,” Kyrgios tells ESPN.
He says there have been times on tour when he was pining for some time off, so the almost melancholic serendipity of the COVID-19 pandemic has played right into the Aussie’s hands.
“When I was travelling all the time and playing and never really home, I had the perspective that ‘tennis wasn’t everything’. It was all one big blur, I could never really just sit and appreciate the little things and sit in one spot. If I lost, I’d be flying to the next place, staying in a different hotel every week,” he says.
“I was almost crying out for a pause on the tour so I could get back home and be with my family.”
And after some much-needed rest and recuperation throughout 2020, Kyrgios says he’s gearing up for a big 2021.
“Fingers crossed my body stays healthy so I can compete and be out there and play well. And that means I can continue to help and use my platform. The better I play, I can continue to help with my foundation (The NK Foundation), and that’s what fuels me,” he says.
“Just to be happy, that’s the goal. I’m not a results-based guy, like I wasn’t playing for me [at the Australian Open], I was playing for the bushfires.
“As long as my mind is in the right place, I think everything else will follow.”