Nick Kyrgios’s Australian Open ended with a gallant fourth round defeat by an inspired Grigor Dimitrov on Sunday but the maverick talent leaves Melbourne Park after winning over a nation.
A year ago, Kyrgios bowed out of his home grand slam to spectators’ jeers following a tempestuous five-set capitulation to Andreas Seppi in the second round.
Yet he was given a standing ovation from the Rod Laver Arena crowd after his 7-6(3) 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(4) loss to third seed Dimitrov, which capped a fruitful home summer including the Brisbane International title.
Australia’s wait for a men’s champion will now stretch to 43 years but Kyrgios’s composure throughout a roller-coaster week will raise fresh hopes among compatriots that the drought may break soon.
“I lost tonight to one of the best players in the world. Went down swinging,” the 22-year-old told reporters.
“Obviously I feel a lot better this time around. Last year I really 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. You know, there were periods where I stepped on the court last year where I was just doing it for the sake of doing it.”
Dimitrov will go into a quarter-final with unseeded Briton Kyle Edmund as he bids for a maiden grand slam triumph that many have seen as his birthright for years.
After the nerve-shredding clash, Kyrgios shared a warm embrace with the Bulgarian 26-year-old, who has struggled to deal with the sky-high expectations that surround him.
A kindred spirit, the richly-talented Kyrgios has also labored under a similar burden since a run to the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2014.
“I just told him to believe in himself,” said Kyrgios.
“Sometimes I think he lacks a bit of belief. But I think he’s got the game and he’s proved to everyone that he can win one of these slams.
“So I just told him to believe himself and hopefully he can go all the way.”
Kyrgios’s exit 12 months ago triggered a minor spat with seven-times grand slam champion and TV pundit John McEnroe, who accused the Australian of giving the sport a “black eye” by not trying during his broadcast of the Seppi match.
On Sunday, however, it was all water under the bridge, with the American heaping praise on Kyrgios’s fight.
“I saw Rod (Laver) there and Johnny Mac commentating in the box and we smiled a couple of times,” said Kyrgios.
“It was obviously a massive experience. I had my first win a couple days ago against (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga. So I feel a lot more comfortable on that court now.”