Heat is on Nick Kyrgios’s critical summer as Australian Open looms

Nick Kyrgios will arrive in Sydney later this week with a lowly rankings status he has not borne since his stunning breakout performance at Wimbledon back in 2014.

The Australian started a summer critical to his ability to retain a place on the main ATP Tour in unfortunate circumstances when forced to withdraw from a tournament in Melbourne on Tuesday.

It means he will slide outside the top 100 for the first time since his run to the Wimbledon quarter-finals as a teenager ranked No 144 eight seasons ago. On a live estimate Kyrgios now sits at 115, but it is possible that will dip further by the next official rankings release on Monday, just a week out from the Australian Open.

The 26-year-old cited asthma as the reason for his inability to take to the baseline against Slovakian Alex Molčan at Melbourne Park in an ATP 250 tournament on Tuesday night.

“I’m really sorry that I’ve had to pull out from this Melbourne Summer Set event,” he said in a statement. “I have been feeling run down and unwell for four days. I have had several Covid tests over the last few days which all came back negative. I don’t feel 100% so I need to take this week to be ready for Sydney next week.”

Melbourne can be a problematic city for asthmatics and breathing issues are not to be trifled with, particularly when the pandemic is raging again in Australia due to the Omicron variant.

It is hoped the six-time ATP Tour titlist will be able to take his place as a wildcard in another ATP Tour tournament in Sydney. But there are several ramifications resulting from his withdrawal from the season-opening match.

His fans in Melbourne miss an opportunity to see an athlete who, at his peak, is an entertainer blessed with the weapons to trouble any of his peers on the tour. As per his profile, the Canberran had been allotted the prime-time match on Rod Laver Arena despite the all-star card for events being held in Melbourne in the opening week.

Reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, dual Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and 20-time major winner Rafael Nadal were among the champions in action on Tuesday. But Kyrgios retains box-office appeal, particularly in Australia, and the host broadcaster was clearly keen to showcase the local star in front of the biggest possible audience.

It means that unless Kyrgios can find some momentum in Sydney, he will return to Melbourne short of match-fitness following two restricted seasons in 2020 and last year. This could be problematic given the 2015 Australian Open quarter-finalist finds himself in a fight to stay in touch with the top 100, let alone return to it.

The right-hander has demonstrated in the past he is more than capable of performing off an interrupted preparation.

Despite limited match play leading into the Australian Open last February he was able to make it to the 3rd Round.

The former world No. 13 edged talented Frenchman Ugo Humbert, who defeated Daniil Medvedev in an ATP Cup rubber this week, before testing US Open champion Dominic Thiem in an engrossing encounter on his favourite court at Melbourne Park.

Kyrgios said recently that he is not motivated by his ranking. Nor, as he has stressed many times, is he driven by a desire to claim a grand slam title.

But the Australian’s best tennis has traditionally come on the biggest stages in sport, with the enigmatic right-hander riffing off the energy he can draw from crowds that flock to see him.

The problem is he may not feature on those stages for some time, and instead find himself in off-Broadway tournaments around the world, unless he performs well over the next three weeks.

The Laver Cup star has 90 ranking points to defend at the Australian Open and should he fail to make a run next week in Sydney, or make at least the 3rd Round at Melbourne Park, Kyrgios will find himself firmly in the rankings wilderness.

No matter the talent of a player, being ranked outside the top 100 can be a difficult spot to rebound from, as he will know from the trevails of at least a couple of his close friends on the tour.

Andre Agassi managed to do so, using his extraordinary ethic to effectively reignite his career when enjoying stunning success in his 30s, but he is an exception.

Murray, who returned from a career-threatening hip injury in February last year using a protected ranking, is finding it a tougher task.

Despite some good signs at times during the 14 singles tournaments he played last year, the Scot was only able to rebuild his ranking to 134 by the end of the 2021 season and was beaten in Melbourne by Facundo Bagnis 6-3 5-7 6-3 in the opening round on Tuesday.

Thanasi Kokkinakis, another who showed great promise as a teenager, produced some strong results when playing almost an entire season for the first time in years. Yet the South Australian was only able to improve his ranking to 171 in 2021, in part due to the rankings protections the ATP put in place during the pandemic.

While Murray was able to play on the main tour using an injury-protected wildcard and wildcards, Kokkinakis spent much of the season on the secondary Challenger tour.

Because of his profile, Kyrgios would also draw sponsors’ invitations to smaller ATP Tour tournaments. But if he is unable to succeed this summer, it is plausible one of Australia’s brighter talents will be forced to qualify for the next grand slam at Roland Garros in late May.