The riddle of Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios hunches into his black hoodie and glowers at the press. He has just eviscerated French wildcard Antoine Hoang at the US Open, playing, as he always does, with a mixture of languid insouciance and impetuous fury, like a wildcat in a box. He raged at the umpire for allowing a late challenge, fulminated when told to turn down his collar – which bore the words “Just Do You” – yet still managed to whip forehands, thump serves and claim 40 winners in the match. In Kyrgios’s argot, Hoang was “chopped up”.
“Nick, we don’t often have two 20-year-old [men] in the third round,” says an Australian reporter at the press conference. “It’s a nice time for Australian tennis.” Kyrgios responds: “I never expect anything less from [de Minaur]; he’s an absolute warrior … when I see him progressing through a draw I know it’s a nightmare for anyone who comes across him.” Kyrgios is not just being magnanimous. He’s right. And this exchange raises an obvious question. Why do we read so much more about Kyrgios than his less bratty and often more successful fellow stars: Ash Barty, who on Monday will be reinstated to women’s world No. 1, or Alex de Minaur, who eliminated seventh seed Kei Nishikori? Why is the drama that Kyrgios can see in de Minaur – a warrior, a nightmare – not promoted by the media and embraced by the public? Instead, sports commentary is dominated by stories of Nick and his meltdowns.
What explains our fascination and our horror?
We might begin with the precise nature of Kyrgios’s offences. In the Cincinnati Masters tournament just prior to the US Open, he was fined $US113,000, the largest monetary punishment ever meted out by the ATP. His bill of infamy included spitting, shouting at the umpire for being “the worst ref ever”, among other things, and taking an unscheduled bathroom break where instead of emptying his bladder, Kyrgios vented his spleen by smashing two racquets. The only player within touching distance of this penalty is Serena Williams, who was fined $US82,500 for threatening to shove a ball down a linesperson’s throat in a semi-final of the 2009 US Open.
For all his volatility, it’s hard to imagine Kyrgios making the same kind of bald-faced threat. But his outbursts are all the more galling for never quite hitting that pitch of rancour. If there’s something “unsporting” about Kyrgios’s behaviour, something that constantly threatens to bring the game “into disrepute”, it’s the sheer pettiness of the manner and matter of his quarrelling. Serving to stay in the 2009 semi, Williams had a foot fault called on her second serve. The eruption cost her the match and, very possibly, the title. Kyrgios’s composure frayed because of a warning (with no penalty) about dawdling between points – a pet peeve for Kyrgios, who has in the past complained about the leeway granted to players such as Rafael Nadal. Cincinnati was also not the first occasion that Kyrgios had used the call of nature as leverage over an umpire: denied a toilet break “emergency” at the 2016 Rogers Cup, Kyrgios sought an overrule from a tournament official. Permission granted, Kyrgios returned to his seat, explaining that he “[didn’t] need to go anymore”.
Such incidents seem almost specifically engineered to sap the sport’s grandeur, to strip it of the mock-epic gloss in which it routinely comes packaged by the press. Gone is the sense of the sporting ground as a site where titanic strength is pitted against titanic strength in mutually hallowing struggle. Instead, we witness simply another variation of the everyday subterfuge between insubordinate worker and petty bureaucrat, between unruly student and pedantic pedagogue, between recalcitrant child and overweening parent. What had been a shrine to human excellence is polluted by the banal irritations of workplace, classroom and home. Kyrgios’s antics remind us that athletes aren’t just muscle and will; they are also bladder and ego. Human, all too human.
There are times when Kyrgios behaves like a churlish teenager, but there are also times when he is simply being creative, extending the parameters of the historically white aristocratic game, creolising tennis’s starched etiquette with the carnivalesque glamour of basketball. What Kyrgios calls “having fun” – the tweeners, underarm serves, trash talk and daring drop shots – others in his generation would call “swag”, an ethos that places as much emphasis on virtuosity as victory and that, in the NBA, drives the athletic excess of slam dunks and no-look passes. Of course, there is a racial dimension to this: Kyrgios is bringing African-American sports culture into a very white game. Channelling 20th-century author, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, the writer Claudia Rankine remarked of Serena Williams’ subjection to bad line call after bad line call: you never look so black as when you’re thrown against a white background. The son of Greek and Malaysian migrants, Kyrgios is not of African or African-American descent, but it is telling that his tennis hero should be the suave Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a Congolese-French player with the nickname “Ali”. It’s a preference that speaks to how difficult it is to fit Kyrgios in the landscape of Australian men’s tennis, with its all-white pantheon of greats: most recently, Pat Cash, Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt. You can’t help but think that if Kyrgios were white, he’d be called a larrikin rather than a brat.
But there’s another thing that rankles about Kyrgios: he exposes the commercialism behind professional tennis. What motivates him to play? “It’s an easy way to make money. I’m just hitting a ball over a net,” he once scandalously claimed. He also often retorts that he is good for the game as people pay a lot to watch him, which is why he won’t be suspended from the ATP no matter how savagely he fights the umpire, fellow players, officials, or himself. The cynicism in this kind of statement has become something of a Kyrgios trademark – accompanied by the dead stare and lifted brow. But it violates one of the unspoken rules of being an elite athlete, who is, in many ways, a professional peddler of the cliché-ridden language of ideals and aspirations, passing each day on a treadmill of self-denial and discipline. It’s not that Kyrgios is incapable of speaking this language but, when he does, it has the ambivalent quality of a humble brag. “Just Do You” was the slogan that got him in trouble, a call to self-expression that was mistaken for branding. It never occurred to the authorities that “Just Do You” might be the opposite of Nike’s “Just do it”, a sanction not to do it if you don’t feel like it; indeed, a mantra of pleasure, sociability and authenticity.
Despite the constant pathologising of his behaviour dressed up as concern for his mental health, Kyrgios might just be a little bit too normal for the sport. He refuses the market logic that turns players into machines – cold, methodical and tunnel-visioned, with the occasional endearing malfunction (think Rafa’s wedgie-picking and water-bottle-adjusting). Outside the pressure of the hype-chamber, Kyrgios can be arrestingly down to earth. In the infamous podcast interview with Ben Rothenberg, he confesses, “I thought, when I was younger, it would have been cool to have all the fame, the money, all this sort of stuff but … I just want to be home [and] doing low-key things.” Perhaps it is not his insanity we see on the court so much as his sanity – a howl of protest against the dystopian world of professional tennis and its grim corridors stalked by lonely tennis-bots, who, as he complains, never even want to say hello.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Passions of St Nick". Subscribe here.