Nick Kyrgios has shrugged off claims of his new-found popularity, saying his controversial approach to tennis will never change.
The 22-year-old said he hasn’t attempted to alter his public perception and will continue his ’emotional’ approach to the sport when he takes on Australian Open third seed Grigor Dimitrov on Sunday night.
Kyrgios is the odds-on favourite for the clash at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, and has the support of seven-time grand slam champion John McEnroe, who said he’s the best talent he’s seen in a decade.
But the praise is unlikely to disrupt Kyrgios, who said media attention still doesn’t worry him – even when it’s on his side.
‘It’s not something I wake up and I’m like: ‘Look, today I’m going to try to change the perception’,’ he told the Herald Sun
‘I’ve always played the same way. Nothing has changed. I’ve always been emotional.
‘I feel like I’ve always been a caring person. I guess it’s just how you guys perceive it.’
McEnroe said that his fellow tennis firebrand appears to be finally heading in the right direction and backed him to win on Sunday night.
‘He is saying all the right things,’ McEnroe said.
‘There’s time for him but he has the talent to do something big, he has the talent to win this right now.’
Kyrgios goes into the match expected to progress into the competition’s quarter finals, despite being seeded 14 places below Dimitrov.
The star from Canberra has only made it past the Round of 16 at a grand slam twice – the last time being three years ago at the Australian Open.
Dimitrov featured in the competition’s semi finals last year, but is considered to be out-of-form after a scrappy win against Russian Andrey Rublev.
Kyrgios can expect to step onto the court to overwhelming support, triggered by the coming-of-age moment he’s experiencing at the tournament.
The mental resilience he displayed by ignoring a self-described ‘social media entertainer’ – who interrupted his match with ‘sex noises’ – won over a portion of his fence-sitters last week.
But it was his display of humility after defeating his childhood hero Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a gruelling match on Friday night that arguably placed himself firmly in many fans’ good-books.
‘I’d never won a match on this court and was obviously a bit nervous playing Jo. I’ve always looked up to him – he’s a great guy and a great champion,’ Kyrgios told Jim Courier post-match.
‘But I’m just happy to get through. You guys [the crowd] were amazing tonight.’
He even delighted the crowd with a gushing display over A-lister Will Smith, who was watching from the stands.
The star-struck sportsman said he was nervous when he spotted the Men In Black star, and just wanted him to think he was the ‘coolest person ever’.
‘I got to tell him – I have Focus on my phone and I watch it every time I have a flight. Best movie ever,’ Kyrgios told Smith.
Smith approved, giving Kyrgios a thumbs up from courtside.
Hoards of fans then responded to the win on social media, with one person saying: ‘Isn’t it typical that all the haters jump on the bandwagon! Always a fan, when good or bad! You’re a real champion.’
Another wrote: ‘I have grown to like him over time. He is an awesome talent and doing a lot of stuff for charity way earlier than most. He plays with heart.’
Only months ago, Kyrgios reached new levels of infamy after walking off the court at the Shanghai Masters following a heated exchange with an umpire.
Audio captured the Australian telling his courtside box he’d quit after the first set in an apparent protest over the decisions of the chair umpire.
In 2015, he was accused of taking sledging too far by telling Stanislas Wawrinka during a match that fellow player and friend Thanasi Kokkinakis ‘banged’ his girlfriend.
Kyrgios was fined $13,127, handed suspended penalties of $32,818, and copped a four-week ban for the stunt.
He also went toe-to-toe in 2015 with Australian sporting icon Dawn Fraser, who claimed young tennis stars should set a better example or ‘go back to where their parents came from’.
Kyrgios – whose father is from Greece and mother from Malaysia – vented his frustration in a Facebook post moments later.
His loyal fans are taking to social media to call-out any ‘bandwagoners’ on his behalf
One person called morning TV hosts ‘frauds’ following their support for Kyrgios
‘Throwing a racket, brat. Debating the rules, disrespectful. Frustrated when competing, spoilt. Showing emotion, arrogant. Blatant racist, Australian legend,’ he wrote.
He’s also racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fines for swearing – most recently on Monday for telling a rowdy fan to ‘shut the f*** up’.
But for now, the greatest redemption story of the year is in full-swing, as Kyrgios prepares for Sunday night’s blockbuster.
Meanwhile, his loyal fans are taking to social media to call-out any ‘bandwagoners’ on his behalf.
‘Kyrgios wins: Australia’s favourite son. Kyrgios loses: just another w** with an attitude and should go back to where his parents came from,’ one person wrote on Saturday morning.
Another wrote: ‘All these frauds on morning TV saying their treatment of Kyrgios has made him change and now they adore him (nothing to do with him winning).’