“It’s easier to be perceived in a negative light – especially in a traditional sport like tennis where ‘gentlemanly behaviour’ is prioritised.”
Indian-origin Australian basketball trainer Mahesh Padmanabhan has some unique access, and therefore insight, into the fractious world of Nick Kyrgios. Having been an integral part of Kyrgios’ camp over the last 18 months, the difference between what the world says outside of their bubble and what seems to be the reality, is quite different.
“People want a story for a story and hype up the negative. At the core of his intentions, a lot of it is just honesty. He doesn’t have a dishonest bone in his body,” Padmanabhan tells The Indian Express.
Kyrgios’ first ever Grand Slam final appearance – especially at this stage of his career – may have surprised some but not Padmanabhan. The run at Wimbledon was fuelled not only by a slew of Russian tennis players being barred from playing in England, but also Kyrgios’ training cum meditation routine – basketball.
Doing his thing on the grandest stage 💪
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 10, 2022
It started with a simple request – initially through Instagram and then through his own manager. Kyrgios wanted to blow off some steam and play basketball, so the word was sent out. Padmanabhan, a professional player who has trained with a National Basketball League (NBL) team and has played in India in two different leagues, was training players in Australia and heard that the mercurial Aussie was looking for a pickup game.
They ended up meeting at a church in Sydney which had a small court along with it, initially playing 3×3 basketball. Soon Kyrgios moved to Sydney to be closer to his girlfriend and the basketball sessions became a regular feature of his week.
On the basketball court, Kyrgios could be himself. Shoot a couple of threes in a row and suddenly the infamous trash talking that has been witnessed in centre courts across the world, started to rear its head. Except, here, it was welcomed.
“He talks. He competes. Everything you see on the tennis court, it’s much the same on the basketball court. I think the basketball world is just more accepting of that behaviour than tennis is,” says Padmanabhan.
“With his 6’4 height and long wingspan, he usually plays in the wing. Deadly mid-range jumper – once he gets hot, he’s unguardable. He’s new to structured basketball, so I show him some concepts with regards to high level basketball from time to time. He’s obviously an astute, elite athlete so he picks things up quickly.”
Basketball as meditation
Kyrgios is infamous in the tennis world for shunning training and has described playing basketball as meditation. But while the game has provided him with an outlet for pacifying his mental health, there are obvious advantages that can get carried over from the game to his world of tennis.
Be it the lateral agility required to slide along the baseline, quick footedness required to react quickly to changing situations or short bursts of sprints followed by a period of rest Kyrgios has found some of tennis’ core movements in basketball. While one sport cannot obviously be a replacement for the other, basketball has ended up providing the Australian the means to switch off from a sport that doesn’t really care to understand him, while still keeping him sharp enough to compete in it.
Playing basketball may have started from Kyrgios’ manager contacting him but them becoming friends came from a place of shared similarities. Padmanabhan, whose parents moved to Sydney from Chennai in 1985, was an ardent tennis player trying to turn pro until the age of 18 when he realised that a long-term future in the sport wasn’t for him. The choice was the right one for him, especially after he got to sample a few serves from Kyrgios when the duo went for a light session on the tennis courts (“Goes to show the absolute skill of Djokovic when he was returning those in the final.”).
Padmanabhan would often come to India as a child with his parents, usually around December and January when he had vacations from school. “To this day, dosa is still one of my favourite foods. I used to love playing cricket on the streets with my cousins,” said the trainer.
After becoming a professional basketball player, he came to India twice – once in 2016 and once in 2018 – for two different leagues. In 2016 Padmanabhan played for the Hyderabad Sky’s in UBA Pro Basketball League and in 2018 captained the Chennai Icons team in 3BL – a 3×3 Pro basketball league.
His experiences from being a child and enjoying cricket on the streets was worlds away from how he viewed India when he came back as a professional. “As a grown man, I would go for a walk. I’d do different things and view things in a new light. It was definitely eye opening. It was eye opening in the sense that I realised how much privilege I’ve had when growing up in Sydney, I’ve had access to certain things that I took for granted.”