ROD LAVER ARENA — It was 31 degrees Celsius, the first set had taken more than 80 minutes and Novak Djokovic had taken none of his eight break point opportunities against Taylor Fritz.
And yet, he found time to celebrate taking a 5-1 lead in the breaker by bending down to the barely visible commentary booths, tucked away at ankle height behind the court, seeking out Nick Kyrgios and blowing him a kiss.
Djokovic said his Australian Open quarter-final was “not enjoyable at all” and that he had endured “a lot of suffering in every aspect”, but his behaviour suggested otherwise. On the other side of the glass, Kyrgios grinned at the gesture – and when the Serbian finally sealed victory in three hours and 45 minutes to reach a record 48th grand slam semi-final, it was his old Australian rival who strolled out carrying a microphone in his right hand where a tennis racket usually would be.
“I never thought I’d be here,” said Kyrgios, who pulled out of the Australian Open in December because of injury and has played just one competitive match in the last 15 months.
Djokovic replied that he was “looking good in that booth but looking better here [on the court], hopefully with a racket also soon”.
“We miss Nick,” Djokovic added, revving up the capacity crowd.
It’s true, tennis misses Kyrgios. As the men’s draw threatens to turn into another Djokovic procession and the women’s draw falls apart once again, tennis continues to lose ground in the battle for eyeballs.
Kyrgios, love him or loathe, helped with the fightback.
That broadcasting executives and their ever-tightening belts are willing to take an expensive risk on his services in their commentary teams – he is alternating days between Eurosport and ESPN, the British and American rights-holders respectively – is a testament to the numbers he helped drive when he was still a tennis player.
Was still? Still is? Sometimes can be? Might have been? It’s hard to know what tense or voice to use when describing Kyrgios the tennis player.
Even before this latest hiatus, he struggled to play a busy schedule and openly admitted he hated playing tennis full-time. Now that he has found other things to do away from the court – podcasting, commentating, launching a talk show with Naomi Osaka – it is not difficult to imagine that he might never swap the microphone back for a racket.
“I guess it was his first one on the court, but he’s doing great, he’s doing really well,” Djokovic told one of Kyrgios’s employers Eurosport.
“I think he is so refreshing for our sport, both with a racket and in the commentary box.
“It’s great to see Nick. He has been a controversial character over the years but I like the way he speaks his mind and he is fun to watch and I had a blast with him on the court.”
Djokovic does not generally become friends with his biggest rivals. He and Andy Murray go back a long way having come through at the same time, but they are not exactly going on holiday with each other’s family. With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, there is a begrudging respect but any friendship is little more than skin deep. They come from different worlds.
And note the past tense “had” in Djokovic’s mention of tennis meetings with Kyrgios. Perhaps it is just an idiosyncrasy of how Djokovic speaks the language, or perhaps it betrays what he thinks, or believes, or even knows about the Australian: that their Wimbledon final in 2022 was a one-off not to be repeated.
Never say never, of course. Kyrgios is only 28 and the way he plays the game is relatively unstrenuous, relying on the remarkable elasticity of his shoulder and seemingly natural brilliance of his forehand. He will never be grinding out results behind the baseline, so the months of fitness training that most players might need after years own the sideline are probably unnecessary.
There will be a comeback, you would think. It is the fashion of the day, whether it be for Conor McGregor, Tyson Fury, Paul Scholes or whoever else: retirement has become a temporary state of being and a dramatic return from the wilderness of post-playing life can be a very profitable thing to do, or even attempt.
“I obviously think when Novak decides to pack it all up you’ll see a bunch of guys winning slams,” Kyrgios said on Monday.
“Secretly that’s my tactic, I’m just waiting for Novak to go, then I’ll go into hibernation, get in the best shape of my life, protected ranking… It’s been my plan all along, leave me alone Novak!”
As it almost always is, Kyrgios’s tongue was firmly wedged in his truth, but as with any good gag it has a grain of truth to it. Kyrgios will have to return to the locker room periodically, if for no other reason than to top up his credibility as a pundit, the most valued currency in the clout-hungry world of TV. On the strength of recent performances, he will not want to rely on his analysis alone.
His moments of insight are rare, although his tactical advice for Fritz ahead of the match with Djokovic was, in theory, sound: that the American needed to come forward more to finish off opportunities created by his powerful groundstrokes. However, it ignored the fact that Fritz is a poor volleyer and won only half of the 15 points where he charged the net in the first set.
“C+, a good try, but can do better,” Kyrgios’s punditry report card might read on that one. On the tennis court though, his truancy remains a frustration. For now at least, that is where he belongs, but increasingly you feel his heart is not in it.