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Nick Kyrgios, with a fresh approach and showman’s flair, is ready to defend his Citi Open title

Nick Kyrgios gets some practice in Monday. “I feel as if I'm not playing for myself anymore,” he says. “I feel like I'm kind of playing for a lot of people who can relate to me.” (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Moments after the gates opened Monday and a full hour before matches began on the opening day of Washington’s Citi Open, one of the more entertaining shows in tennis got underway on Court 5.

Without so much as a stretch or warm-up, Nick Kyrgios launched into a practice session that encapsulated so much about the mercurial talent who is also the tournament’s defending champion.

Like a Ferrari that balks at anything less than top speed, Kyrgios started ripping forehands full-tilt at fellow Australian John Millman. When the rhythm of a backhand exchange got a bit predictable, Kyrgios fired a behind-the-back shot. And when the time came to play points, Kyrgios flicked an underhanded serve and chuckled, then followed just seconds later with a howitzer blast probably upward of 135 mph.

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As word spread that Kyrgios was practicing in the shadow of the main stadium court,fans streamed in and packed the four rows of bleachers to marvel at the explosiveness and creativity of his strokes, many filming videos to capture what words can’t.

If some were offended by the countless F-bombs Kyrgios dropped in his freewheeling banter with Millman — none with animus — no one walked out.

Depending on who’s talking, Kyrgios is the most talented player in men’s tennis outside of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — a trio who are currently tied for the men’s record of 20 Grand Slams.

Or he is a cautionary tale and a monument to squandered potential. A tennis savant who could have won a clutch of majors were it not for his combustible temperament, aversion to coaching and refusal to crisscross the globe chasing ranking points and tournament titles.

Kyrgios has heard it all.

A familiar name was back on the court as Citi Open returned to D.C.

But at 26, he’s not here to appease tennis commentators. He’s not necessarily here for titles. In a sense, Kyrgios isn’t even here for himself, as he explained to reporters upon arriving in Washington to defend his Citi Open title.

“I feel as if I'm not playing for myself anymore,” Kyrgios said. “I feel like I'm kind of playing for a lot of people who can relate to me.”

It’s a paradox that one of the sport’s greatest talents has never fallen in love with tennis. Truth be told, the 6-foot-4 Kyrgios, who probably would have excelled at any number of sports, likes basketball more. The Boston Celtics, in particular.

But he competes, nonetheless — as his mood and comfort level with pandemic protocols allow — to serve as what he describes as “a bridge” between basketball, with its passion and creativity, and tennis. He sees himself as a panacea for the stuffiness he feels ails tennis, with his fresh approach, frank talk and showman’s flair.

During a match at the 2019 Citi Open, he turned to one fan in the stands and asked him to choose where he’d like him to hit his next serve.

At an ATP tournament in Atlanta last week, which marked Kyrgios’s return to competition after an abdominal injury forced him out of an early-round match at Wimbledon, he was a promoter’s dream, interacting with fans as if that were as important as holding serve.

“I enjoy now playing just for fun,” said Kyrgios, who has played just four tournaments this year. “I really do enjoy just being around fans, just talking with them, getting to know what they do.”

To others, he crosses the line to disrespect too often. At his worst, he has not only smashed rackets in anger but also spat on an official and seemingly tanked matches.

As Kyrgios sees it, tennis would be better served by embracing him than by fining and faulting him to coloring outside the lines.

“I do think the sport of tennis has really struggled in the past embracing personalities, embracing people that do it differently,” Kyrgios said. “Instead of out-casting and almost crucifying a personality, you say: ‘Okay, this guy is different, let’s act a certain way, let’s not treat him like a Roger Federer or like a Marin Cilic. He’s his own person.’ ”

He has arrived at this conclusion after fending off torrents of abuse and racist attacks (his father is Greek, his mother Malay), he said, as a teenage phenom who reached No. 1 in the junior ranks.

Weary of coaches telling him how to play and how often to train, Kyrgios has gone without a coach at all in recent years, traveling with his girlfriend and best friend who doubles as his manager.

At the Citi Open, Kyrgios said, he feels at home, despite being reared halfway around the world in Canberra and now living in the Bahamas.

It’s “a vibe” he gets in Washington, of acceptance and appreciation.

“The first time I came on-site [Sunday], everyone was kind of embracing me,” Kyrgios said. “Felt like I was playing almost in Australia. I feel completely comfortable here.”

To that end, he’s not only entered in singles — facing American Mackenzie McDonald in his first-round match Tuesday at 7 p.m. — but also in doubles, pairing for the first time with his pal Frances Tiafoe of Hyattsville.

Given how much they laugh when they’re together, Kyrgios said, he honestly had no idea if they can focus long enough to get through a match

“It could be an absolute disaster,” he said, “or it could be a lot of fun.”

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