There is weather in Australia, and there is weather in Canberra. A morning in the middle of winter, about two decades ago, was not atypical: it was a little chilly.
When the boy came to the tennis lesson, he could not hold on to the racket. Instead of canceling the lesson, the boy’s father hatched a plan. He filled the refrigerator-shaped tub with hot water. The boy then put his hands into the box. Now young Nick Kyrgios could hold his racket.
“I have no idea how Nick used to train in the morning,” recalls Nill, Kyrgios’ mother. If it wasn’t for the rain, “they’d be there” playing 12 months of the year. She laughs at a photo of Christos, Nick’s older brother, “trying to work out at 7am – he can’t move his legs because it’s so cold.”
“You have to be strong to leave Canberra to play tennis,” says Christos. Telegraph Sport. “I have memories of getting up early in front of school and trying to play and you couldn’t feel your hands or fingers.”
Some parents were willing to cancel classes if it was too cold or too slippery. But Kyrgios’ parents were “adamant that we didn’t miss a class,” recalls Andrew Bulli, who coached Nick every week from age four to fourteen.
This weekend, Neill and George, Nick’s parents, will travel from Canberra to Melbourne with their dogs in tow, a trip the family took every year before the pandemic.
When Nick Kyrgios plays his first match at the Australian Open on Mondayhe will do so as one of the most talked about athletes in the world. His tennis revived last year.; he is the fourth favorite in the men’s singles. But five days after the Australian Open final, Kyrgios is set to face trial on charges of assault by his ex-girlfriend in connection with an alleged incident in January 2021. (Kyrgios is seeking the dismissal of the charge on mental health grounds.)
“Kids will tell you that I was very strict”
In early 2023, Nick spent five days at the family home in Watson, a suburb of northern Canberra. His parents have lived here for 35 years. They had three children: Christos, born in 1987; Halima, born in 1989; and the baby of the family Nick, born in 1995.
“Canberra is his home, he feels safe,” Neill says half an hour after Nick left for Melbourne. “When Christ and Nick are here, we just laugh, we joke.”
Nick comes home as often as his schedule allows. In Canberra, Kyrgios can often be seen walking his dogs King and Quincy. He also occasionally returns to play at the Lyneham Tennis Centre, where he used to ride his bike for 15 minutes to play and was often watched by his grandmother. After her death in 2014, Nick made a donation towards the construction of “Nanna’s Hut”, a small gazebo where viewers can look in the shade at Lineham.
To understand the dynamics that shaped Nick’s childhood, one must go back a generation. George was seven years old when he emigrated from Georgani on the Greek mainland to Australia; Neill was eight years old when she moved from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, to Queanbeyan in New South Wales.
“It was a trauma for me – I faced racism,” she recalls. “I remember sitting on the bench wishing someone would invite me to play. These memories are very painful – to be isolated, to be called whatever, as people call someone with dark skin.
Neill credits her childhood as having influenced her upbringing in two ways. First, “I protect them, I’m a mother hen.”
Secondly, she wanted to give her children the chances she lacked. “I was very bossy because when I grew up I had nothing.” Both parents – Neill as a software engineer, George as a house painter – worked hard to provide for their children.
“I have terrible teeth, so I swore that children would never have bad teeth. So I scraped and scraped and we paid $100 a month to wear braces for them for months and months. I still remember the last payment.
“If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all – forget about it… I was very strict, I was very strict with the kids. I wanted a lot from them.”
In turn, “the only thing mom and dad expected from us was for you to come and give 100 percent,” Christ recalls. “Every time our parents pushed us was out of love and gave us an opportunity they knew we would appreciate in the future.”
For Nick, these opportunities went far beyond sports. When he was five years old, Neill took Nick to see his sister Halima playing jazz. “I’m going, well, it’s a waste of time,” Neill recalls. “I enrolled him in a dance class. At the end of the year he had to give a concert, and he was the only boy on stage. I was so proud of him, he knew the steps.”
“His tennis IQ is off the charts”
Growing up, “Nick enjoyed being on the court, watching Christos and collecting balls,” Neill recalls. “One day we just gave him a racket.”
At the age of four, Nick started taking classes. Bully quickly realized that it didn’t make sense for Nick to play with kids his age. In addition to hourly, and then two-week individual lessons, Nick had group lessons every week with older children.
“Once he got it, he did it pretty quickly,” recalls Bulli. “He could adapt quickly and then ignore things that didn’t work… His tennis IQ is off the charts.”
However, coaching Nick wasn’t easy either. While exercising, he easily got bored: “Scoring points was a big deal. You should have scored.”
Players almost always look more impressive in training than in matches when they’re working hard. Nick was different. “Most people can train well but find it hard to find a competitive mindset. He didn’t evade, he didn’t call back.”
Nick needed those qualities when playing against Christos, a good enough player to win local underage tournaments. The big brother didn’t go easy on the little brother; in fact, older brother cheated. “I called the balls that were in play to try and win,” admits Christos.
Like many tennis players, Nick is an example of the younger sibling effect: under the influence of playing with their older siblings, younger children eventually become better athletes. At the age of 12, Nick defeated Christos for the first time, who was 20 years old. When he wasn’t playing with Christos, Nick played for hours on Saturdays and Sundays with a pair of brothers, both slightly older, who spent almost every weekend in Canberra from the country town.
However, despite being a good junior player, perhaps due to being chubby and suffering from asthma, Nick was not considered a tennis prodigy. Bulli believed that the other boy he was coaching, slightly older than Nick, would be more likely to turn pro.
“He was always considered a child who was not going to succeed or had problems,” reflects Christ. “He loves to go out and prove people wrong.”
On one of the public holidays, when he was a boy, Nick told his parents: “I want to hit today.” But when all three arrived at the courts, they were closed. “We all crawled under that fence to get to the other side,” Neill recalls. “I had grass marks on my T-shirt”
“Every time he chose basketball”
Nick’s competitive instincts were used not only in tennis. He was an excellent swimmer; he left at the age of 13 because he didn’t like it anymore. But his true love of sports was not swimming or tennis.
As a child, Nick played basketball and represented his school and youth teams in the Australian Capital Territory. He played six or seven times a week; At home, he watched the NBA while supporting the Boston Celtics and played the NBA Live Playstation game. Bulli often started his tennis lessons by asking about Nick’s basketball.
“I love this game. I love the sound of a basketball court,” Kyrgios told The New Yorker in 2017. “I like the team atmosphere.”
Unlike many parents of promising tennis players who were coached by Bulli, George and Neill did not rush Nick to specialize. But when Nick was 14, he got the offer of a lifetime: five days of free practice a week from Tennis Australia at their high-performing academy in Canberra. It was a watershed moment for Nick and his family.
“I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis,” Nick later said. “I was pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say that I don’t like this sport.”
Neill’s thoughts occasionally go back to the day the family decided that Nick should focus on tennis. “It was a discussion to say, ‘OK, Nick, you’re good at both, but at the moment you’re being torn apart. You have school, you have basketball, you have tennis, okay, you can’t do everything. Let’s focus on tennis for three years. And if you don’t like it or we don’t get anywhere, then you go back to your basketball.” So we all agreed. But what we didn’t understand was that once you start the journey, you can’t get off it.”
Nick’s height, 6’4″, is three inches shorter than the average for the National Basketball Association of America. And so, while his temperament and personality were better suited to team sports, his skills and physique were better suited to individual pursuits. “If you could tell him if you would prefer how you fit with talent in tennis and physicality in basketball, and you could choose a path, he would choose basketball every time,” Christos muses.
With his NBA dream gone, Nick had to settle for casual games from the age of 14; he still plays as much as possible between tennis tournaments. “He watches basketball every day – it’s his passion, it’s his outlet, it’s his medicine,” says Neill. “If I ran out of time…