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Time away from tennis and ‘Mamba Mentality’: 2020 was the year Kyrgios needed

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Like most people, Australian tennis phenom Nick Kyrgios thinks his mum’s home cooking is some of the best there is — and he has had plenty of time to come to that conclusion given he has been living back at the family home since late February, when the COVID-19 crisis really took hold.

“People tend to be biased, saying their mum’s always a good cook, but my mum is really good,” the 25-year-old tells ESPN from his bedroom adorned with various framed sports jerseys.

“We had a massive feast last night. But just being at home in my own bed, with my dog, just being comfortable in my own house [has been good].”

While many players have been braving a global pandemic as the tennis train rolls on throughout the world, the Canberra native has been relishing some time away from the tour. He says he has been catching up with friends and family at a time when he’d normally be moving from hotel room to hotel room, city to city.

“I haven’t been home like this with my family and friends for seven years. There’s [usually] a massive block of the tennis schedule from after the Australian Open to about this time,” he says.

“I’m not taking it for granted, it’s been an amazing time at home to see my parents, siblings, and just to be home in Canberra is pretty special. Tennis is a strange sport — especially being from Australia, we’re never home. So I’m a really lucky man at the moment.”

But to say Kyrgios has been twiddling his thumbs while the rest of the tour continues to play at tournaments around the world would be wrong. Aside from his usual training routines, he has been immersing himself in some of his other passions, playing video games while streaming on Twitch, and, of course, watching basketball.

“Basketball was my first love, even before tennis. I had a basketball hoop outside my house, and I’m a massive Celtics fan. I honestly just started playing basketball around the same time. I picked up a ball and it felt natural. I just love the sport. I think it’s the best sport in the world,” Kyrgios says.

And he has had time to pay close attention to the goings-on in the NBA’s Florida bubble; his beloved Boston Celtics made a run to the Eastern Conference finals before falling to the Miami Heat in Game 6.

“I was heartbroken when the Celtics went down to the Heat, I honestly thought that was a series we were going to take. All credit to Jimmy Butler, he was an absolute dog all playoffs, and he’s solidified himself as a superstar in the league,” Kyrgios says.

“But if [it wasn’t to be] the Celtics, the Lakers are my next team. I love Rondo. Rajon Rondo is one of my favourite players, and I thought he played a massive role in the playoffs — gave them stability and controlled the tempo.

“But I’m glad LeBron James got that ring. They always said he was doing it in a ‘weak East,’ and now he went to the West, finished as the No. 1 seed and got it done, so I’m super stoked for LeBron.”

Far from a casual NBA fan, the world No. 43 is fully immersed in the competition and has been for most of his life. Two years ago he collaborated with Kyrie Irving to release a hoops-tennis crossover sneaker that Kyrgios says helps “bridge the gap” between the sports, while the Aussie also revealed that he’d previously caught up with Celtics forward Gordon Hayward during a tennis tournament in Miami.

You only have to cast your mind back to January, when the world learned of the devastating news that Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash, to see what an impact basketball — and Bryant — had on Kyrgios growing up.

He wore Bryant’s No. 8 jersey on his walk out to Rod Laver Arena for his fourth-round Australian Open match against Rafael Nadal — headphones on, wiping tears from his eyes.

“That day still weighs heavily on me. I woke up and that was the first thing I saw on my phone. Honestly, I didn’t believe it to begin with, and then it sunk in and it was just heavy,” Kyrgios recalls.

“Going out [onto the court that night], I was very worried about how I was going to perform with that weighing on my mind. What he stood for as a basketballer, always trying to get better, always trying to look to help people and get the best out of everyone, and when I wore his jersey, going out onto court was something I’ll never forget.

“I had my headphones on, but I had nothing playing because I just wanted to hear the reaction, the atmosphere, and I just broke down because I was watching Kobe almost every day of my life growing up.

“It was a very sad day, but I’m glad the Lakers, LeBron, they [won the 2020 NBA Finals] for him — it fueled everyone at that organisation.

“Even myself, when I’m having those days when I’m training or playing in that jersey — I’ve got him tattooed on my arm as well, so he’s someone I’ll never forget.”

play

1:03

Nick Kyrgios looks back on the day Kobe Bryant died, and how it felt wearing his jersey on court at the Australian Open.

Kyrgios says he places Bryant, James and Bulls legend Michael Jordan in the same “God tier,” and admits he’s loathed to order them as many try to do in the never-ending greatest of all time debate.

“I hate doing the comparisons. I know we have to do them, as people we always try and compare [James and Jordan], and who has had a better career, but I think there’s a category for them alone. I think Michael, Kobe and LeBron are in that God tier where they’re just untouchables. They were all special in their own way, they all were doing different things for their team,” Kyrgios says.

“LeBron is one of the greatest of all time in all sports, I think. The things he does off the court as well as on it are so special, I don’t think we’ve ever seen that. But his consistency — he’s so underappreciated, when he has a triple double, it’s just a normal thing … and when he has a slightly off game, [the critics come].”

Dealing with critics is something James and Kyrgios perhaps have in common. Analysed on the court and outspoken off it, Kyrgios has, to the amusement of some, become a vocal voice of reason in tennis in 2020.

From his living room in Australia’s national capital, Kyrgios was most critical of the decision to push on with June’s Adria Tour, which carried on without adequate social distancing or crowd restrictions, and, unsurprisingly, ended with four players, including Novak Djokovic, testing positive for the coronavirus.

Kyrgios also strongly condemned the actions of Alexander Zverev, who was filmed partying in close proximity to others.

He says he’s not one to shy away from his opinions, claiming that people “appreciate the honesty” more than anything.

“Everything I say is quite factual when I’m talking about things that have happened or on issues [in the world]. I just say it how it is, I just say what I think personally, and there are always going to be people who don’t agree, but I think people appreciate the honesty. I mean, I do when someone speaks up on an issue and they’re honest and it’s what they think,” he tells ESPN.

Despite his sometimes brash nature on social media, Kyrgios says he has started to “feel the warmth” from more tennis fans, something that may have stemmed from his charity work for underprivileged children, and the generous pledge to donate money to the Australian bushfire appeal for every ace sent down during the Australian summer of tennis.

He raised AU$33,800 for bushfire relief through his aces alone, and inspired many others, including athletes from other sports to make similar, generous contributions. The ‘Rally for Relief” event, of which Kyrgios was the main architect, raised nearly AU$5,000,000.

“I’ve never been one to crave being liked or anything like that. When I was a young chap, I was always very emotional when I played, and nothing’s really changed,” he admits with a wry smile.

“Whether the perception was they loved me or hated me, my stadiums are always full, TV ratings up … but this year with the bushfires, people were losing homes and lives … and so I put that tweet out that I’d donate for every ace, and it went out throughout Australia and then globally.

“I’m not looking for the media attention doing that stuff, I just realised we could help. In Canberra, we had the most toxic air in the world at one stage [due to the bushfires], and we couldn’t really go outside — it wasn’t pleasant.

“I’ve definitely felt the public perception warm to me a little more, but it didn’t drive me to do these things.”

The Australian Open was the last Grand Slam Kyrgios played, and it will likely be the next one he plays, too. Of course, Kyrgios says he misses competing, admitting it’s hard to get the same energy on the practice courts or playing video games as “going on court in front of thousands of people and playing against the best players in the world”.

“It is something I’m craving and missing. But having said that, it’s given me time to focus on some of the basics in life that I’ve maybe overlooked or just missed out on in the last couple of years in my life,” Kyrgios tells ESPN.

He says there have been times on tour when he was pining for some time off, so the almost melancholic serendipity of the COVID-19 pandemic has played right into the Aussie’s hands.

“When I was travelling all the time and playing and never really home, I had the perspective that ‘tennis wasn’t everything.’ It was all one big blur, I could never really just sit and appreciate the little things and sit in one spot. If I lost, I’d be flying to the next place, staying in a different hotel every week,” he says.

“I was almost crying out for a pause on the tour so I could get back home and be with my family.”

And after some much-needed rest and recuperation throughout 2020, Kyrgios says he’s gearing up for a big 2021.

“Fingers crossed my body stays healthy so I can compete and be out there and play well. And that means I can continue to help and use my platform. The better I play, I can continue to help with my foundation [The NK Foundation], and that’s what fuels me,” he says.

“Just to be happy, that’s the goal. I’m not a results-based guy, like I wasn’t playing for me [at the Australian Open], I was playing for the bushfires.

“As long as my mind is in the right place, I think everything else will follow.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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