With the US Open set to begin in a week, a recurring question has bobbed to the surface in the wake of Nick Kyrgios belting his way to the Cincinnati Masters 1000 final. Is it time once again to expect a breakthrough from the talented Aussie?
A skeptic might scoff at the idea and reply with the old saw, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." But the recent success of generational peers led by sensational Alexander Zverev, 20, may light a fire under Kyrgios.
"I've just been going through a load of stuff [lately] that has distracted me from just trying to play some tennis, and hopefully I'm just trying to get on the right track again," Kyrgios told reporters in Cincinnati. "I'm starting to, slowly."
The controversial Kyrgios might have to speed it up a little bit.
He is just 22 and has long been hailed as the most talented of the emerging players expected to supplant the Big Four as they age out of the game. But Kyrgios is complicated, with a seemingly bottomless capacity to disappoint and fall back on self-justifications and excuses as creative as his shot-making.
In fairness, the explosive, whippet-lean right-hander with the howitzer serve has had more injuries than a player of his age and physique ought. Those include recent nagging hip and shoulder injuries. He's also had some rotten luck.
Kyrgios was booed off the court by his fellow countrymen following his second-round loss to Andreas Seppi in the Australian Open early this year, but then went on a tear. Kyrgios made the semis at Marseilles, then upset top seed Novak Djokovic on his way to the semis in Acapulco.
At Indian Wells soon thereafter, Kyrgios had back-to-back wins over Zverev and Djokovic, but food poisoning forced him to issue a quarterfinal walkover to Roger Federer. Just weeks later in the Miami semis, he dueled Federer through three tiebreaker sets but lost.
As the clay season began, Kyrgios withdrew from the Estoril tournament to attend the funeral of his beloved grandfather, Christos Kyrgios. He neglected his training and had indifferent results when he returned to the tour following the funeral. Kyrgios played a desultory second-round match against Kevin Anderson at the French Open, and later told reporters: "After my grandpa passing, I just lost a lot of motivation to do anything, really."
Kyrgios wrote "74 + 89 R.I.P." in tribute to his deceased grandparents after he overwhelmed David Ferrer in the Cincinnati semifinals, later telling reporters: "I have been pretty crazy ever since she left. They were unbelievable support. It was tough. I can't really talk about it too much."
The owner of just three tour-level titles, Kyrgios retired during matches in his next three tournaments (London; Wimbledon; Washington, D.C.). He only began to navigate past the "distractions," injury and emotional turbulence over the past two weeks.
His confession of emotional vulnerability was touching and understandable, but the reality is that Kyrgios' mercurial history is littered with red flags. His unfocused, listless performances in some big matches have mortified even his supporters. He's had injuries, but he's repeatedly professed indifference to his profession and its requirements, declaring he'd rather be an NBA player.
At the French Open, Kyrgios said he doesn't like to practice on red clay back at home in Canberra because "it gets my car dirty." He may wear his sensitivity on his clay-free sleeve, but he's launched ugly controversies and confrontations.
Still, Kyrgios has the degree of talent that successfully extorts forgiveness from people who cherish the game and the kind of rare talent he possesses. Asking people to give him more time to mature, and to issue him a pass on numerous shortcomings is a humming cottage industry. Old-school Aussie stalwarts like Kyrgios' Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt and Rod Laver have refused to spurn him. At the worst of times, even they look like enablers who make too many concessions to Kyrgios' incandescent talent -- and overlook some of his cut-and-dried flaws.
On Sunday in Cincinnati, Kyrgios volubly complained about the heat and then wilted at the worst time, surrendering a shockingly easy service break that allowed Dimitrov to serve out what had been a good match up until then with a disappointing lack of drama. Both were first-time Masters finalists, although Dimitrov -- once a dazzling prodigy himself -- is older (26) and ranked nine spots above Kyrgios, at No. 9. It was just the kind of match Kyrgios needs to win in order to avoid becoming, like Dimitrov, the Next Big Thing who has yet to happen.
Kyrgios is an impressive 12-17 against top-10 players since he stunned No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. He's beaten every member of the Big Four but Andy Murray. Yet he comes up flat in too many big matches and seems to have a healthy appetite for self-destruction.
It's a mystery. It's complicated. It's the story of Kyrgios career thus far. The US Open awaits.