MELBOURNE: Nick Kyrgios emerged as a "voice of sanity" for tennis over the COVID-19 pandemic, and the mercurial 25-year-old has a chance to show he can also be a contender on court when he meets Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open third round.
Known for being outspoken, Kyrgios took plenty of pot shots at fellow players for their indiscretions during the global crisis and hurled insults at world number one Novak Djokovic on numerous occasions.
In response, Kyrgios' critics have pointed to the Australian maverick's tantrums on court and his lack of substantial achievements at the game's highest levels.
While Kyrgios' talent is undoubted - he is among the few players in the world to have beaten the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic - he remains an underachiever at Grand Slams where he has never gone past the quarter-finals.
"I think he's a very talented guy," Djokovic said this week. "He has proven that he has a quality to beat any player really in the world in the past," he said, though he added he had little respect for the Australian off the court.
Kyrgios has improved his "bad boy" image since he kick-started a campaign that raised millions of dollars for the victims of bushfires that ravaged southern Australia during last year's tournament.
Marked as a tennis prodigy when he first arrived on the circuit as a teenager, Kyrgios would probably accept that he should have achieved more than six ATP titles and a career-high ranking of 13th.
He faces another stern test on Friday (Feb 12) in his bid to make it to the second week of a Grand Slam when he meets US Open champion and world number three Thiem, a finalist at Melbourne Park last year.
Kyrgios can be assured of the usual delirious support at his favourite John Cain Arena, but it remains to be seen if he has enough left in his tank after Wednesday's emotional five-set win when he rallied to victory after saving two match points.
"We've seen it in the past that it's tough for him to come back," said Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander, a three-time champion at Melbourne Park.
"Nick plays a great match on that court, maybe two matches, and then he comes and plays a better guy and he's running out of steam a little bit because it's so emotional for him to play."
Seven-time Grand Slam winner Wilander feels a win against Thiem on Friday could take Kyrgios to the next level.
"He needs to prove to himself that he can win a match like that and take out one of the best players in the world in the following round," Wilander added.
"We know he can win five-setters, but can he back it up ... that's the question?"
Kyrgios rated Thiem as one of the most physical guys on tour and an extremely good player, but will go into the match believing he has "a good chance".
"Whatever happens against Thiem happens," he said. "I'm going to go out there, serve, play with instinct, and if it's enough, it's enough. If it isn't, I'm all right with that."