Nick Kyrgios’ ex-agent shares untold stories about the tennis star
Amazing talent. Ridiculously fast arm. Not in shape. Big mouth.
Twelve years ago, during a doubles match at the Australian Open men’s tournament, the man who discovered Nick Kyrgios engraved these words in a notebook that remains in his possession.
“I wanted to sign this kid,” his former agent and mentor John Morris told the Herald and age pretty much the first time he saw the 14-year-old.
“I sent him messages but couldn’t get a response. And I could see that he had seen them. I continued it for about 18 months.
The following year, at Roland-Garros, Morris unknowingly passed the young Australian.
“It’s your boy, Kyrgios,” Morris’ colleague told him.
Morris didn’t believe it. This tall, skinny version of the chubby kid he wrote about in his notebook had transformed. Still, Morris wasn’t convinced it was the same person.
“Pseudo?” he asked as he walked past the teen, who nonchalantly replied with a “Yo”. “I said, ‘F— me, you grew up’.”
Morris signed him at Wimbledon a month later. It came with a guarantee that if Tennis Australia ever withdrew its funding, the agency would build up the funds to develop it.
“That was the click,” Morris said of the start of the duo’s 10-year journey together.
“From day one they could have left Tennis Australia but they never did. They stayed with TA until it was freelance when they knew we would have supported them if they had needed it. It’s huge. So many people would have exploited and abused it; put family members on the payroll.
“But they never abused it. To me, that’s a real sign and mark of the people he and his family are. They are really good people. It’s not a wealthy family. They don’t come from the money. They are a hardworking and decent family. That’s why they didn’t abuse it.
It wasn’t long before the endorsements started rolling in. And with that came many challenges as Kyrgios, as always, marched to the beat of his own drum.
Like the time he decided to cut off his shirt sleeves because he wanted to play in a jersey.
Or the time he waltzed into the Australian Open men’s final against Thanasi Kokkinakis in 2013 in an 18-month-old Nike shirt.
“Nike went ballistic,” Morris recalls.
“They said, ‘What the f— is this kid doing? Do you think we can use pictures of him in an 18 month old shirt? It showed her purity and creativity, but also her naivety. He just didn’t think it would be a problem.
“He wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, piss anyone off or be upset. He just didn’t get it. He was a kid who had a favorite lucky jersey and that It was a big game and he wanted to wear it.
Those who have been allowed to know the real Nick Kyrgios – and there aren’t many – will tell you that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.
There’s a side to the rock star that smashes racquets, abuses refs, spits on courts and denigrates boxes that Kyrgios does his best to keep hidden. He is fiercely loyal to those he deems loyal to him.
Like the time in Lyon when, after withdrawing from the singles draw at the start of a preparatory tournament at Roland-Garros, he sacrificed his Grand Slam preparations to honor a promise made to his doubles partner and friend. Matt Reid.
“That night at dinner he was a little hurt and was about to tell me he was going to Paris to prepare for Roland Garros,” Reid recalled.
“I was obviously a little disappointed, but I understood. After a glass of wine or two, he then made me a deal. He said if I went drinking to drink with him, he would play doubles with me the next day.
“So we ended up going out until the early hours. We showed up on the pitch about 10 minutes before our game and I said to myself: ‘This is not going to last long’. He puts on one of the greatest individual performances you’ve ever seen to the point where I couldn’t help but laugh. We won… Well, to be fair, he won it on his own.
The reason Kyrgios continually reverts to his bad boy image is puzzling to those who call him a friend.
He has seen several sports psychologists, which Kyrgios says he regrets, who have tried to unravel the young Australian from a web he has been weaving since toppling Rafael Nadal to reach the quarter-finals at Wimbledon as a teenager in 2014.
“He became a caricature of that bad boy image and he kinda played it up,” Morris said.
“It wasn’t really him. And then you walk down a path and, eventually, he just takes on the role. Even this week, he plays the villain role well. That’s literally it – it’s a role. In many ways, he’s a stage persona, but he’s a tool of protection.
“If he’s small, with his walls up, in his mind, he can’t be hurt. He thinks, ‘If I don’t let the conversations go on or if I don’t let you in, then I can’t being hurt.” I understand. But it’s a protective tool. The Nick Kyrgios I knew was a really sweet, genuine, sensitive person.
Before Kyrgios’ Wimbledon run in 2014, Morris asked him for help raising money for the school of his nephew, who has Down syndrome.
Morris said nothing more about it the following week, but less than half an hour after his decisive victory over Nadal, Kyrgios emerged from the locker room with his boots in hand.
“There you go, Mozza,” Kyrgios said as he handed him the signed Nikes he had just worn on center court.
“He said, ‘Give them to your sister, it will make money.’ It was right after the biggest moment of his career, before seeing his family or celebrating with anyone. I have always remembered this moment. I knew there was a good person in there.
There are many in Australia who strongly disagree; who can’t forgive or excuse the outbursts and tantrums that have seen Kyrgios’ generational talent on the tennis court eclipsed by the circus he’s creating.
The criticism of those who had Kyrgios’ ear is a perceived unwillingness or inability to tell him what he needed to hear. Morris strongly refuted these claims.
“I think a lot of people would have tried to rein him in and box him out,” he said. “That’s not what it’s about. He needs to be guided and I think we guided him very well. But it always had to be him. Yeah, you had to train him a bit and get him back on track, but he’s so special and so unique in who he is and what he brings to the game.
“My favorite athlete of all time, without a doubt, is Andre Agassi. We always said that Nick is Agassi 2.0. And yes, there were some unsavory things that I didn’t like but there is a magnetism in him and a certain charisma in him. There’s this magic dust that you just don’t want to touch. Leave it alone. Let it be because it’s so damn special.
Kyrgios thrives in an environment where the odds are stacked against him. His career record of 2-0 against Novak Djokovic is testament to that.
But he has long been weighed down by expectations, imploding in the games he was supposed to win.
“He said to us a few times, ‘I feel like I let you down,'” Morris said. “It broke my heart. I said, “Losing a game, you would never let me down.” The only time I’ll feel let down when I’m away from my family is when he’s tanking. It really hurt me because as an athlete, that’s the only thing you have complete control over – to perform at your best.
“I remember sitting with him when he played against Marinko Matosevic in Malaysia in 2014. I said, ‘The more you do this, the easier it’s going to get, so you have to stop this now’. He would come back from those games, he would feel like crap for doing it.
“What I hated was certain people he had around him, some of them – even friends – laughing and joking and I thought not. It’s not funny. And Nick knew it wasn’t funny because two hours later he would feel like shit.
“It’s almost like playing at the gallery. They are not your real friends. If they think it’s funny and they enjoy it, they’re not your friends.
Kyrgios, now under the direction of Stuart Duguid, surrounds himself with people he trusts.
The dark clouds, which once left his mother in fear for her son’s safety, have lifted.
On Sunday night, in front of British royalty and Hollywood megastars, the kid from Canberra will have a chance to make history.
Incredible talent with a ridiculously fast arm in the shape of his life.
Big mouth ? It will be the least of Wimbledon’s concerns if he steps onto center court in his lucky 11-year-old yellow jersey.