Can Nick Kyrgios Win a Grand Slam?

Today’s breaking news? Former Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis thinks that Nick Kyrgios can win the Australian Open. Hey, it’s almost the offseason. We take our news wherever we can get it.

Still, it’s an interesting question. Is it possible for such a volatile, one-dimensional player to string together seven wins on one of the biggest stages in the sport? Philippoussis–not the most versatile of players himself–reached two Slam finals. A big serve can take you far.

Last year, I published a post investigating the “minimum viable return game,” the level of return success that a player would need to maintain in order to reach the highest echelon of men’s tennis. It’s rare to finish a season in the top ten without winning at least 38% of return points, though a few players, including Milos Raonic, have managed it. When I wrote that article, Kyrgios’s average for the previous 52 weeks was a measly 31.7%, almost in the territory of John Isner and Ivo Karlovic.

Kyrgios has improved since then. In 2016, he won 35.4% of return points, almost equal to Raonic’s 35.9%–and most would agree that Milos had an excellent year. Philippoussis’s career mark was only 34.9%, though Kyrgios would be lucky to play as many tournaments on grass and carpet as Philippoussis did. Still, a sub-36% rate of return points won isn’t usually good enough in today’s game: Raonic was only the third player since 1991 (along with Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic) to finish a season in the top five with such a low rate.

Then again, Philippoussis didn’t say anything about finishing in the top five. The “minimum viable Slam-winning return game” might be different. Looking at all Grand Slam champions back to 1991, here are the lowest single-tournament rates of return points won:

Year  Slam             Player               RPW%                     
2001  Wimbledon        Goran Ivanisevic    31.1%  
1996  US Open          Pete Sampras        32.8%  
2009  Wimbledon        Roger Federer       33.7%  
2002  US Open          Pete Sampras        35.6%  
2000  Wimbledon        Pete Sampras        36.6%  
2010  Wimbledon        Rafael Nadal        36.8%  
2014  Australian Open  Stan Wawrinka       37.0%  
1998  Wimbledon        Pete Sampras        37.2%  
1991  Wimbledon        Michael Stich       37.4%  
2000  US Open          Marat Safin         37.5%

Wimbledon is well-represented here, as we might expect. Not so for Kyrgios’s home Slam: Stan Wawrinka‘s 2014 Australian Open title is the only time it appears in the top 20, even though it has played very fast in recent years. Every other Melbourne titlist won at least 39.5% of return points. As with year-end top-ten finishes, 38% is a reasonable rule of thumb for the minimum viable level, though on rare occasions, it is possible to come in below that.

The bar is set: Can Kyrgios clear it? 18 months ago, when Kyrgios’s 52-week return-points-won average was below 32%, the obvious answer would have been negative. His current mark above 35% makes the question a more interesting one. To win a Slam, he’ll probably need to return better, but only for seven matches.

The Australian has enjoyed one seven-match streak–in fact, a nine-match run–that would be more than good enough. Combining his title in Marseille and his semifinal showing in Dubai this Februrary, Kyrgios played almost nine matches (he retired with a back injury in the last one) while winning a whopping 41.5% of return points. At 42 of the last 104 Slams, the champion has won return points at a lower rate.

However, February was an aberration. To approximate Kyrgios’s success over the length of a Slam, I looked at his return points won over every possible streak of ten matches. (Most of his matches have been best-of-three, so ten matches is about the same number of points as a Slam title run.) Aside from the streaks involving Marseille and Dubai this year, he has never topped 37% for that length of time.

There’s always hope for improvement, especially for a mercurial 21-year-old in a sport dominated by older men. But the evidence is against him here, as well. Research by falstaff78 suggests that players do not substantially improve their return statistics as they mature. That may seem counterintuitive, since some players clearly do develop their skills. However, as players get better, they go deeper in tournaments and alter their schedules, changing the mix of opponents they face. Two years ago, Kyrgios faced seven top-20 players. This year he played 18. Raonic, who represents an optimistic career trajectory for Kyrgios, faced 26 this season.

Against the top 20–the sorts of Grand Slam opponents a player has to beat to get from the fourth round to the trophy ceremony–Kyrgios has won less than 30% of his career return points. Even Raonic, who has yet to win a Slam himself, has done better, and won 32.6% of return points against top-20 opponents this year.

There’s little doubt that Kyrgios has the serve to win Grand Slams. And once the Big Four retire, I suppose someone will have to win the majors. But even in weak eras, you need to break serve, and at Slams, you typically need to do so many times, and against very high-quality opponents. The evidence we have so far strongly implies that Kyrgios, like Philippoussis before him, will struggle to triumph at a Slam.