Tim Cahill and Nick Kyrgios are both hugely gifted Australian athletes. One has made the most of his talents, the other seems hell bent on frittering them away.
Cahill’s greatest asset is his head; for Kyrgios, it’s his greatest liability.
Cahill focuses on beating the opposition, Kyrgios has the game to beat everyone but seems to focus on beating himself.
Admittedly, their sports require different skills and temperaments.
Football is a team game where your skills are harnessed to a larger cause. You play for the team and in return the team plays for you, enhances your strengths, protects your weaknesses.
Tennis is an individual sport where you can’t hide your weakness, even for a second — as Kyrgios has discovered.
Yet at the highest level, sport is a mental test. This is where Cahill has succeeded and endured.
Another triumph for the Socceroos
On Tuesday night Cahill used his head, twice, to lead Australia to a tense victory over unlucky Syria in their World Cup qualification.
The sight of him leaping above taller defenders to drive the ball into the net off his forehead is starting to rival an Aussie Rules mark in our national psyche.
He’s starred for Australia through four World Cup campaigns, distinguished himself for his English team club Everton and others, and has consistently raised his game to the big-match occasion.
There are many other players who are more talented but just can’t do it. Cahill does it so regularly that we don’t seem to notice when he doesn’t.
His achievements have been built on self-belief, composure, a capacity to forget your mistakes and undying hunger to succeed.
Another court drama for Kyrgios
Kyrigos, by contrast, seems to exude none of these qualities.
On the same day that Cahill performed his heroics, Kyrgios walked off the court after arguing with an umpire during the first set of an opening round match in Shanghai.
He claimed it was due to a stomach bug (not the first time); media reports implied it was in protest at the umpiring (the umpteenth time).
Krygios has now imploded so often, finding new levels of ugliness each time, that we’re wondering why he keeps playing. He doesn’t seem to know.
He lets every injustice get under his skin and gives the impression that the world is against him.
Love of the game
While Cahill, still competitive at 37, clearly loves playing football, Kyrgios seems not to love playing tennis — at least not for himself.
This may be the key. When he plays for a team such as the Davis Cup, or more recently the Laver Cup (between Europe and the rest of the world), Kyrgios moves closer to the player we expect to see.
Then the sport becomes a cause, his efforts are invested with a meaning beyond his own success.
His attitude to playing for his country is a world away from what we see on the ATP tour.
Perhaps, like Cahill, Kyrgios needs the greater mission of a team sport to draw out the best in him.
The Socceroos have a permanent holy grail ahead of them.
The World Cup has displaced the Olympics as our national barometer of global stature.
It imbues every player with an unspoken goal and sense of cause.
Perhaps Kyrgios needs something like that to push him beyond his own youthful selfishness.
After all, our early 20s are a period when everyone is searching for meaning.
Meaning outside the game
There may be another route to that meaning.
Last week Kyrgios wrote in an online publication, the Players’ Voice, that he had a purpose in life.
He wants to help underprivileged children, start a foundation and facility, sparked by an encounter with a child with cancer during the Australian Open.
He wants to set up a camp or foundation to help children with disabilities.
“Tennis is a great life … but it can feel empty if you’re just doing it for the money.
“I know what it’s all for now … when I’m working on the NK Foundation and our Melbourne facility, I cast my mind forward to all the disadvantaged kids I’ll be helping. I’m playing for them now.”
Krygios has often said that tennis is just a game to him.
Perhaps this goal, if he can commit to it, will somehow allow him to channel his prodigious talent — as Cahill as managed to do — and help him focus.
Perhaps he needs the responsibility that propels team players to perform week in, week out — the knowledge that others depend on him.
Michael Visontay is the author of Welcome to Wanderland (Hardie Grant).