Shanghai: What Nick Kyrgios did in Shanghai this week, patting serves across the net with all the insouciance of a six-year-old’s instructor, is a reflection not of a preening maverick but of a troubled soul.
This is a figure who has moved beyond adolescent angst to a realm where more stubborn demons dwell.
Half the time, this obstreperous man-child gives every impression that he loathes tennis — and that he could hardly be less bothered about anyone’s reproach.
“Just leave,” he told the Chinese fans who turned up for his ‘tanking’ against Mischa Zverev.
Did he not owe them the courtesy of behaving professionally?
“What does that even mean? I’m good at hitting a tennis ball. Big deal. I don’t owe them anything. I didn’t ask them to come and watch.”
None of Kyrgios’s conduct makes much sense any longer. One moment he is winning a tournament in Tokyo with a startling abundance of talent, the next he acts as if he cannot wait for his match to end so that he can tackle the next level of Pokemon Go.
He gives a press conference belittling local supporters for their temerity in buying a ticket, then half an hour later writes an apology — one that bears all the hallmarks of an agent having the vapours — in which he acknowledges that he is “still a work in progress”. Truth be told, the Australian is a puzzle that might never be solved.
He remains, just as he was when he achieved his breakthrough victory against Rafael Nadal in 2014, a study in screaming truculence.
This often invites a false equivalence with John McEnroe, his predecessor as the enfant terrible of tennis.
The difference is that McEnroe cursed so much because he cared so much.
Kyrgios, by contrast, offers only absent-minded petulance, unleavened by wit or charm or anything like contrition.
His wise-guy remark after the embarrassing display in Shanghai — “you know I’m unpredictable, it’s your choice” — showed how deeply he has bought into his own publicity.
He might not care for the sport, or the monotony of practice sessions, or the shuttling from one faceless hotel room to the next, but he surely loves the notoriety. There is, on the evidence of Kyrgios’s latest casual act of self-destruction, at least one short-circuit in his psychological wiring.
Amateur shrinks have posited that he might be suffering from depression, but without disclosure from the player himself this is purely speculative.
All that can be said with certainty about his mental state is that he is, even for a 21-year-old, worryingly immature.
He described how he prepared for his fourth-round match against Andy Murray at Wimbledon this year by watching video games, while a New York Times profile suggested that he was most comfortable when surrounding himself with children who shared his PlayStation passion.
Take this exchange with his girlfriend, Ajla Tomljanovic, when he has to break off from his augmented digital reality to do a photo-shoot.
“I’m not playing Pokemon with your seven-year-old friend,” she says.
“He’s 10, not seven,” he replies. There is a fascinating academic study to be written on Kyrgios, exploring how the hamster-wheel of tennis life leaves its most precocious stars painfully maladjusted. How else does one explain his chronic attitude problem? There is no wrong-side-of-the-tracks back story.
He had a comfortable upbringing in Canberra, often voted the most liveable city on Earth.
Plus, he keeps a coterie of yes-men close by.
The chief attack-dog is his brother Christos, who wades in on the slightest intimation of criticism, often abusively.
When Kyrgios made a crass under-the-breath comment about Donna Vekic, Stanislas Wawrinka’s girlfriend, Christos took to Australian radio to defame her further until the presenters cut him off.
Then, as if to prove that the apple does not fall far from the tree, his mother Norlaila, a former Malaysian princess, chose to have her say. “A sledge for a sledge,” she wrote on Twitter, before deleting the account.
Remember this the next time anybody argues that Kyrgios’s best therapy would be tea and sympathy.
He is quite indulged enough already.
The pounds 13,500 (Dh60,670) fine he was given yesterday for tossing away the match against Zverev was a derisory sanction only likely to perpetuate his offending.
He was fined twice at this summer’s Wimbledon for audible obscenities, and it made not the slightest difference.
A month later, in Cincinnati, he reacted to defeat by the Croatian teenager Borna Cilic by smashing up his rackets on court.
A very few can be excused this type of bad-boy shtick on the strength of their track records.
McEnroe, for instance, could legitimately shush his detractors by pointing to his eight grand slam titles.
In snooker, likewise, Ronnie O’Sullivan can excuse his arrogance and his occasional unspeakable act with a microphone by providing displays of unanswerable genius.
Kyrgios, however, has no such luxury. He has yet to advance beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament.
Kyrgios’s overwhelming issue, as he acknowledged at Wimbledon, is that he dislikes tennis but has no idea what the alternative might be. He could pursue his beloved basketball, although at only 6ft 4in his options would be limited. He could take up another profession altogether, although the lack of any significant secondary or tertiary education would complicate matters. While he agonises, or whiles away the hours on Pokemon, members of the paying public suffer for his state of limbo. If Kyrgios cannot even honour the principle that he should give his fans his best effort, then he should seriously question why he is a tennis player at all. As it stands, he is short-changing not only his supporters through his selfish listlessness, but himself.