Smitten Australia falls for 'childish brat' Kyrgios


Melbourne (AFP)

So often reviled for his antics on court, Australia's Nick Kyrgios is now something of a national hero after his box-office performances at Melbourne Park and heartfelt support for the victims of deadly bushfires.

The 24-year-old's apparent newfound maturity was lauded in local media after his four-set victory on Thursday over France's Gilles Simon in the Australian Open second round.

A picture of the 23rd seed punching the air took up half the front page of Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper, proclaiming: "Kyrgios beats demons, wins admirers."

He was on the back pages too after his 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory, which set up a third-round meeting with Karen Khachanov, the 16th seed from Russia.

There were flashes of the worst of Kyrgios, losing his temper with his court-side coaching team and threatening to unravel as the stubborn Simon refused to lie down.

"I could have gone to a very dark place in the fourth set," the Australian, who has a suspension hanging over him following a litany of misdemeanours on court, admitted.

But a column in the Herald Sun summed up the changing attitude towards the temperamental Kyrgios, whose undoubted talent has long been overshadowed by rows with spectators and umpires, and accusations that he "tanked" matches.

"He was once our most unpopular sporting export but now he's the unofficial people's choice for Australian of the Year," said the gushing column.

It was partly because he was winning matches, first at the ATP Cup for the home nation and now for himself in Melbourne.

But it is more to do with his spearheading efforts to help out those who have suffered in Australia's bushfire tragedy, said the opinion piece.

The country has been battling an unprecedented wave of wildfires since September that have devastated communities, killing at least 29 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes.

Players at the Australian Open and the tournament itself have come up with a variety of ways to donate to a relief fund, but it is Kyrgios who is seen as driving it.

"It seems as if in a matter of weeks the enfant terrible of Australian tennis has gone from childish brat to voice of reason," the column said.

- 'Not acceptable from me' -

At Melbourne Arena on Thursday Kyrgios could do no wrong in front of a partisan and packed crowd for the match with Simon.

At the start of the month the power-serving Kyrgios pledged Aus$200 (US$205) for every ace he sends down during the Australian tennis summer.

So after the first of his 28 aces, a male voice in the crowd shouted out, "Thank you, Nick."

That was followed by a separate, "We love you, Nick."

His apology to his coaching team afterwards for berating them was more proof of his growing maturity, said his growing legion of fans.

"It's not acceptable from me," said Kyrgios.

But there is always a caveat with the colourful Kyrgios and this would not be the first time that observers have rushed to proclaim "the new Nick".

In 2016, Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said that "he's certainly, we've felt, more recently turned the corner".

But that was followed by more rows with umpires, more thrown chairs and more matches when Kyrgios did not appear to be trying his hardest.

"It's a long journey, it's a long-term journey when it comes to Nick," added Tiley.

It's a journey that, at least for now, Australia and Kyrgios are very happy to be on together.