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Healthy, happy -- hungry? Nick Kyrgios on top in battle with himself

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Wimbledon ball girl hit by 135 mph serve (1:20)

A 135 mph serve by Nick Kyrgios hit the arm of a ball girl, forcing her to leave the match with the help of Denis Istomin. (1:20)

WIMBLEDON -- Nick Kyrgios exists in a constant state of tension -- in his own words, a "tug of war" -- with his emotions when he's playing a tennis match. The significant news is that these days the positive emotions appear to be winning.

The mercurial 23-year-old Australian has had plenty of reason to feel negative in recent times. He missed the entire clay court season this year with an elbow injury. Last year, he had to quit Wimbledon during his first-round match due to a painful hip injury. The stunning breakthrough he crafted at Wimbledon at age 19 in 2014, when he knocked out Richard Gasquet and Rafael Nadal to reach the quarterfinals, has been fading farther and farther in the rearview mirror.

But things may be changing. Healthy again, Kyrgios is on a tear. At Wimbledon on Tuesday, he conducted a master class on grass, defeating Denis Istomin -- no slouch on turf himself -- in two-and-a-half hours in a first-round battle, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-3.

"I guess I'm in kind of like a happy place," Kyrgios said afterward. "I feel like I'm playing well. I mean, I have a different approach. I feel like I'm one of the guys that can cause a bit of an uproar at this event. We'll see how it goes."

A happy Kyrgios is a dangerous Kyrgios, but tennis is a livelier sport. It seems that every year, when a Grand Slam event rolls around, the biggest names in tennis take turns leaping on the soapbox to extol the potential of the whippet-lean, 6-foot-4 Aussie. It's clear that everyone, wants to see this uniquely gifted player flourish.

Just last week, John McEnroe said, "Nick to me is the most talented tennis player of the last 10 years I've seen, since (Novak) Djokovic, (Andy) Murray, (Rafael) Nadal, (Roger) Federer. He's an incredible talent. Certainly he's one of the most dangerous guys. He'd be one of the six, eight guys (who can win Wimbledon)."

Yet Kyrgios has never been able to duplicate the results he put up in the roughly six-month period spanning 2014 and 2015 when he reached the quarterfinals here and then at the Australian Open. There are numerous reasons for that, not least of which is injury. The pressure of expectations also have weighed more heavily on him than it may appear, and probably helps explain the puzzling love-hate relationship he's had with the game in recent years.

But the fog of confusion seems to be lifting. Kyrgios tuned up for Wimbledon at Stuttgart and Queens, where he lost in the semis to, respectively, eventual champs Roger Federer and Marin Cilic. "I'm just in a lot better place than I was last year," he said. "Coming back, I've been excited."

It showed against Istomin out on Court 12. The first handful of games featured an eyebrow-raising -- or was it mind-blowing? -- blizzard of sliced forehands and drop shots, delicate stuff mixed with the odd, atomic forehand blast and those by-now familiar scorching serves.

Time and again, aces and unreturnable serves put Kyrgios in the driver's seat, or the ejector seat when he was in trouble, most notably in those critical first two tiebreakers. That left him free at other times to tinker with crowd-pleasing trick shots.

Kyrgios is like the guy who walks into a bar and orders a round for everyone in the joint, even though he may not even have enough to cover the tab. He's profligate: His game is electric, sloppy, spectacular, unpredictable, breathtaking, inventive, infuriating, joyful.

As usual, there were games in which Kyrgios appeared to lose interest, just waving at the ball as if it were a passenger on a passing train. He carried on a constant conversation with himself. He tried some odd shots at baffling times. But, as former player and now TV pundit Mats Wilander said in a recent interview: "Some players will freak out (and) wonder, is he (Kyrgios) trying or not? But it's just the way he plays. Roger Federer used to hit tweeners early in his career on big points. It doesn't mean Nick is not trying. It's a way for him to enjoy himself and probably relaxes him, makes him play better.

"McEnroe used to throw tantrums, Nastase did crazy things. This is Nick's way. He can definitely win Wimbledon. I love his style and he's unbelievably good for the sport."

Kyrgios smacked 42 aces in the match. At two-all in the fourth set, he fired a serve that basically knocked Istomin over as he tried to defend himself. But Istomin managed to get the return over the net. Kyrgios eventually won the point and as the men sat for the changeover they smiled at each other as Kyrgios asked, "How did you make that?"

The challenge for Kyrgios will be to sustain his focus and equilibrium over the course of, potentially, two weeks' worth of five-set matches. It's something that doesn't come easily for everyone, especially those who, like Kyrgios, can fall prey to negative emotions. Andy Murray once had trouble keeping an even keel through the seven five-set matches it takes to win a major, but ultimately conquered his pessimistic impulses.

Kyrgios' task is compounded by the depth of his talent. It's a truism: the most gifted players are often the ones who lack the determination and desire that champions possess.

"I don't know how much you can teach hunger and focus and commitment," Chris Evert said last week. "I mean, you can encourage it, but until it gets into his persona, until it gets into his conscience and his heart, we're not going to see the best of Nick Kyrgios. It's just the way he is.

"It's very often that the most talented players, when things come very easy to them, sometimes mentally they're not as tough because they don't have to be. It's the grinders that have to work harder that are sometimes mentally tougher. He's got to find that desire and that hunger inside himself."

So the tug of war goes on, the two sides of Nick Kyrgios taking turns gaining -- and losing -- ground. Right now, the positive side is winning. We're ready for the uproar.