Lleyton Hewitt is tipping Nick Kyrgios to win back the fans after seeing a vastly different side to Australian sport’s most polarising personality.
In the space of two years, Kyrgios has gone from centre-court favourite to, in many eyes, a national embarrassment after lurching from one controversy to the next.
After starting 2016 on a suspended ban, the 21-year-old ended the season on a full-blown one and was advised to undergo counselling following his Shanghai Masters meltdown in October.
Kyrgios returns to the court on Friday when he teams with Serena Williams to lead the Singapore Slammers’ Indian Tennis Premier League title defence against the UAE Royals.
The hit-and-giggle exhibition format is a far cry from the grand slam pressure cooker where the combustible world No.13 has often come undone.
But Hewitt, who endured similar troubles with fans and rivals early in his career, is confident Kyrgios will emerge a stronger, more mature performer in 2017.
“I think he can win over the public,” said the Australian Davis Cup captain and one of the coachless Kyrgios’s chief mentors.
“Obviously what happened in Shanghai was disappointing and (especially after) he made a few steps forward the week before and at the Davis Cup tie in Sydney a couple of weeks before that.
“Off the court, he’s been fantastic with the other boys and a lot of the stuff that I guess that the media and public don’t see.
“So I’m actually really happy in the place he’s at within our team.”
It took the combative Hewitt the best part of a decade to win back Australian support and now the former world No.1 is challenging Kyrgios to use Davis Cup as a platform to do the same.
Kyrgios’s singles victory over Slovakia’s Andrej Martin in September was the first Davis Cup point he’d secured for Australia in two years.
“Building a team, he has to step up and be the leader of that team and fittingly he needs some good experiences at some Davis Cup ties,” Hewitt said.
“Even though it was small tie in Sydney, I think that was the start for him.
“Obviously there was the hiccup in Shanghai but if he can learn from that, then hopefully we’re all going to be better for it.”
Talent-wise, Kyrgios remains unquestionably world tennis’s next big thing and Hewitt has no doubt the two-time grand slam quarter-finalist is ready to crack the top 10.
“Nick’s had a great year performance-wise, winning three titles, a 500 title for the first time, beating a lot of quality players, but I still feel there’s improvement for him,” he said.
‘He’s 13 in the world. Obviously the next step is to get top 10, which is well within reach.”