Nick Kyrgios playing at the 2019 Citi Open Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Nick Kyrgios knows some people have strong opinions of him. He can be brash and doesn’t hesitate to criticize his fellow tennis pros when he disagrees with them or feels slighted. On the court, he can be irascible and berate himself and officials. He has smashed countless rackets, been defaulted, and received boos from fans after withdrawing from matches. Kyrgios has acknowledged in the past that he struggled with his maturity and how to deal with the pressure of being one of Australia’s biggest tennis stars.

But now, at 26, Kyrgios, one of the most polarizing player in tennis, sounds more comfortable with his relationship with tennis and his place in it. On Sunday, during a candid virtual press conference with reporters ahead of his first round match tonight against American Mackenzie McDonald at the Citi Open (where Kyrgios is the defending champion), he spoke about his belief that tennis needs to embrace all kinds of personalities, from those who live and breath tennis to those, like him, who don’t take the sport as seriously. (Disclosure: City Paper owner Mark Ein manages the Citi Open.)

“Some players like to have fun, do it their way,” Kyrgios said. “I think it’s important to have both. I think it’s important to have a balance of both. I do think the sport of tennis has really struggled in the past embracing personalities, embracing people that do it differently. I think they’re starting to warm up to it.”

At the 2019 Citi Open, Kyrgios demonstrated a fun, more easy-going side that fans don’t always see. Toward the end of his matches, he walked up to fans to ask them where he should serve. He prepared for matches by playing table tennis with kids in the players’ lounge. Even now, as he plays in just his eighth event in the past two years, Kyrgios appears to enjoy interacting with fans, which some pros find to be a burden.

“Definitely feels like home,” Kyrgios said Sunday of playing in D.C. “The first time I came on-site today, everyone was kind of embracing me. Felt like I was playing almost in Australia. I feel completely comfortable here … I just love the fans.”

Kyrgios also reflected on how his relationship with tennis has evolved over the years. He did not use the word “retirement,” but said he approaches each tournament like it could be his last time at the event.

“I’m not going to lie. I mean, I don’t miss it that much any more,” Kyrgios said when asked about how he felt about being back on tour. “It’s good to be back, obviously, especially at these tournaments where I’m extremely comfortable and there’s a lot of crowd … I definitely feel, I mean, it’s pretty crazy. I don’t know … Like, when I come here and I play, I feel vibes. Like every time I’m at a tournament, I feel like it could be my last time I’m ever going to be here. In Atlanta I felt the same way. Washington, I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m at. I feel weird. I feel strange about my career at the moment.”

Kyrgios referred to himself as a “part-time player” and added that he doesn’t take any tournament or match for granted anymore. For him, the priority is having fun, not winning Grand Slams or rising in the rankings. Kyrgios is currently ranked No. 77 in the world. Part of having fun is doing things his own way.

“I feel like I’m not competing with anyone,” Kyrgios said. “I don’t feel like I’m trying to climb up the rankings or win any tournaments. I’m kind of doing it my own way, taking it day by day … I definitely feel like at the start of my career, I was not worrying, but obviously had coaches, people telling me, ‘We need to hit this kind of ranking point, try this, do this.’ Now, I don’t honestly give a single ‘F.’ I do whatever I want to do, float around, play some tournaments, just have some fun with it.”

At the Citi Open, he has also teamed up with Hyattsville native Frances Tiafoe for doubles. The two are friends and have spoken in the past about teaming up for doubles. Kyrgios joked on Sunday that the pair “could be an absolute disaster or it could be a lot of fun. Me and Frances, when we’re together, we don’t stop laughing and we don’t have any sort of tennis talk really.”

Kyrgios said that the hateful messages, criticism, and fines he’s received for his behavior have affected him mentally. “This sport could have driven me into a place of dark, which it did for a bit,” he said. “How mentally tough it was for 18, being one of the most well-known players in Australia, getting absolutely hammered with media. It’s not so easy. Now I’m 26, I’m old enough, I know it’s all bullshit. I feel like tennis really struggled embracing personalities earlier on in my career.”

Ultimately, Kyrgios said he believes “deep down, I know I’m great for the sport,” and cited the fact that tournaments like the Citi Open promote him during the event. Asked if there’s a particular matchup that would get him excited, Kyrgios used the opportunity to again explain why he doesn’t value winning a Grand Slam.

“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice for it to happen,” he said. “It would be great to win the U.S. Open. [But] I’m not going to look back at my career and say, ‘Oh no, I didn’t win one. I’m not going to be disappointed if I lose a match. Like I said, I don’t value wins on the tennis court as much as I value a healthy relationship with my girlfriend or my best friend, things that actually mean something to me.”

In terms of tennis, Kyrgios is just taking it a day at a time. “If I think too far ahead, it’s too complicated,” he said.