Despite loss, nothing but positive takeaways for Nick Kyrgios

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Nick Kyrgios is maturing as a person and improving as a player. Say it again. These were the two common themes this fortnight for someone who has historically taken a lot of criticism from fans and media. Good on him. But the question we have to ask now is a pretty simple one: What's next?

That his performance Sunday wasn't quite enough to get past Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round of the Australian Open should not get him down. Kyrgios played great tennis. He smacked 36 aces and came up with enormous shots under pressure. Impressively, he competed from first ball to last.

We have always known Kyrgios has the talent to succeed and the gumption to go for his shots. How many players can blast second serves at 124 miles per hour when the match is on the line?

If not for an exceptional and resilient performance from Dimitrov -- who won the prestigious ATP Tour Finals last November -- Kyrgios would have been in a quarterfinal here for the second time in his career.

Sure, his result at this year's Aussie Open will, at least initially, go down as a disappointment for Kyrgios. But the truth is, his focus and engagement on the court, along with his encouraging words to the press, are a major step in the right direction. So can he begin to win even more events on tour? He already bagged a championship to start 2018 in Brisbane. That's a terrific start.

Last year, Kyrgios was jeered off court after losing to Andreas Seppi, from two sets up in the second round. This time he received a standing ovation.

"I played well," he said. "I lost to one of the best players in the world, went down swinging. Obviously I feel a lot better this time around. Last year I didn't know what I was going to do after the Australian Open. I feel like I have more of a vision and goal for this year. I think I'm in a good head space.

"I just feel like I'm trying to get better. There were periods where I stepped on court last year where I was just doing it for the sake of doing it. I'm trying to get better."

After Davis Cup, the season will shift to the U.S., where two of the biggest events of the year, at Indian Wells and Miami, will be played in March. A year ago, Kyrgios played valiantly at the former, losing a devastating match to Roger Federer in three tiebreakers. It'll be imperative for Kyrgios to play well before the clay swing begins.

To think Kyrgios can go deep at the French Open may be a stretch right now, since the dirt negates some of his power and tests his patience more than other surfaces. But the grass of Wimbledon and the hard courts of the US Open should give him an opportunity.

Perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves and asking too much from a player we have to remember is still 22 years old. But the truth is we've waited for what seems like years for him to break through in a high-profile event.

Sure, there will still be some people who dislike his occasionally brash behavior and refuse to see past it. Others love his talent but wish he would be more consistent. And some just take him as they see him.

Everyone has an opinion on Kyrgios. He might not admit it, but that pressure has to weigh on him.

He'll always rant on the court; we saw it Sunday against Dimitrov, but the great thing was that even when he did let off steam, his head was back in the game on the very next point. That is a gift very few possess. Just ask John McEnroe.

Kyrgios has been talking a good game, saying all the right things about maturity, about his desire to be a role model to young kids, to help the young Australians coming through on the tour.

He has four career titles, which is not bad for a 22-year-old. As Roger Federer pointed out Saturday, he didn't get past the final eight of a Grand Slam event until he was 22 (when he won Wimbledon for the first time). No one is comparing Federer and Kyrgios, but it's a nice reminder that sometimes it takes a while to find your way.

Kyrgios has time on his side -- for the most part, anyway. He has the ability to cause serious damage on tour, especially on faster surfaces. Now it's all about desire and resolve.

The real test will come when he is a long way from home, away from his home crowd, and when things are not going his way. Kyrgios should now be equipped to deal with those obstacles. His performance Sunday night should help to convince him -- if he is lacking any conviction -- that he is capable of great things.

As he approached Dimitrov at the net following the match, Kyrgios told the Bulgarian to "believe." He would do well to do the same himself.