Last summer, I finally fulfilled one of my life goals – watching the Australian Open in person, at Melbourne Park. I’d moved to Melbourne from Sydney the week the tournament started, and decided it was time to soak up the atmosphere at Rod Laver Arena, one of the most iconic sporting venues in Australia.
My naive enthusiasm was quickly punctured when I learnt the remaining tickets at Rod Laver cost hundreds of dollars. I was keen to watch, much less keen to shell out a week’s rent for a seat. Thankfully I was pointed towards Melbourne Arena, where a $50 ground pass allowed entry – as long as you were happy to line up and take a seat wherever there was space. So that’s where I went, to watch Nick Kyrgios take on Italian Lorenzo Sonego in the first round of the tournament.
The people sitting around me weren’t the tennis crowds I was used to seeing on TV – the boat-shoe, broad-brimmed hat crowd you see at Rod Laver or Margaret Court arenas or the white-clad Wimbledon set. The common word used to describe them is “diverse”, but that feels like an understatement. Yes, it’s diverse in terms of culture and class, but it’s more than that. It actually looks like Australia. The Australia that Kyrgios himself, as the son of a Greek father and Malaysian mother, embodies.
Every tennis player dreams of playing their grand slam matches on centre court. But not Kyrgios. In previous years, he’s made clear to Australian Open officials that he’d rather play his early rounds at Melbourne Arena. The court’s accessibility and the blend of people that invites make it his preferred place to play.
And on that court, Kyrgios plays for the crowd, and the crowd returns the favour.
Kyrgios has regularly said he feeds off the crowd’s enthusiasm.
That night last summer, Kyrgios, powered by the home crowd, beat Sonego in straight sets. He went all the way to the fourth round, eventually losing to world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in a gritty match featuring two tiebreakers. Kyrgios’ performance in that tournament led to a chorus of praise. “I think when he is playing like today with this positive factor, he gives a lot of positive things to our sport,” Nadal said.
Kyrgios’ on-court attitude capped off his reputational comeback that summer. Before the 2020 Australian Open had kicked off, he called on its organisers to use the event as an opportunity to raise funds for communities devastated by the summer’s bushfires. His proposal led to a “Rally for Relief” event at Rod Laver, which raised almost $5 million. His selflessness in response to the fires and his magnanimous efforts on the court fed an idea that the former “bad boy” had finally come good.
Fast forward 12 months though, to this year’s Australian Open, and it seems the narrative around Kyrgios is as murky as ever.
On Wednesday night, Kyrgios was back on his favourite court, now renamed after long-serving Labor premier John Cain. Known for his reformist agenda, Cain famously forced the Melbourne Cricket Club to accept women as full members. As such, John Cain Arena is an apt name for a venue famous for its spirit of equality and diversity.
The name may have changed but there was no denying this was the same crowd. Young kids held up homemade signs, Australian and Greek flags were waved, beer was spilled, gasps and applause drowned out the umpire’s pleas for silence.
In a five-set nail-biter against tenacious Frenchman Ugo Humbert, Kyrgios stared down two match points to fight his way back to a win. And the first thing he did in his post-match interview was thank the crowd. They had helped him back from the brink, and he knew it. When he was asked how he managed to turn the match around, he was candid.
“Honestly, if you were in my head, I was just thinking about all the shit I was going to cop if I lost that match,” he said.
“I was almost afraid. I was afraid to come into this [media] room … [to] take all the negativity in that I’ve already taken. It’s not easy to come back and try and put it all behind me. That’s what I was thinking about. I don’t know how I got out of it. It was insane …
“If another Aussie loses tonight and they’re going to be like, ‘Great effort, winning a first round, he really put his heart out.’ But if I lose tonight it’s an absolute disaster.”
It was an insight into the mind of one of Australia’s most compelling, and most divisive, athletes. It was also a reflection of the fact that the early framing of his reputation as “arrogant” and “disrespectful” has burrowed deep into his psyche.
And, as it turns out, his fear of being attacked by the media and the public was entirely rational. On the morning after his stunning performance I was a guest on ABC Melbourne radio to discuss the match. Text messages flooded into the station: “Kyrgios is an arrogant, petulant knob. Always will be”; “He is an immature baby that brings our country into disrepute. I wish people would not pander to him.”
On Twitter a prominent ABC presenter described Kyrgios as a “shambling graceless oaf” and the crowd cheering him on as “boorish”, “braying”, “smug” and “ugly”.
The disdain and sheer contempt for Kyrgios among many Australians has always lacked justification, but it’s become more and more uncomfortable to observe as he’s increased his focus on the court, channelled his profile to raise funds for various causes and become a public figure advocating public health and safety during Covid-19.
On Wednesday night, Kyrgios was honest about the toll that years of relentless media criticism has taken on him.
“I know I cop a lot of flak for everything I do,” he said after the match. “My mind’s taking it all in. It’s not easy to just put it behind you. I started dealing with this when I was 17 … I was a child then. I know now to try to block it out, I’m more mature, but it’s still not easy.”
It’s not the first time he’s been candid about the mental challenges he’s faced. At the 2017 Australian Open, after losing to Italian Andreas Seppi, Kyrgios described himself as “pretty banged up”.
“The mental side of things are big for me,” he said.
In 2016, he was accused at the Shanghai Masters of losing on purpose and “disrespecting” the sport. He responded by acknowledging he was “physically and mentally tired”. The next day he apologised for being “not good enough”. But the criticism kept rolling in.
Later that year, a veteran BBC tennis commentator compared his behaviour to that of an animal from The Jungle Book. In 2015, Australian sports icon Dawn Fraser told Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic to “go back to where their parents came from”.
I’ve always found it hard to separate race from the discussion about Kyrgios. So much of the language used to describe him is highly loaded. It’s rarely discussed – because if there’s one thing less racially representative of this country than elite sports, it’s the media class who write about it. But for those of us who love sport and come from migrant backgrounds, like Kyrgios, it’s always there, like a burr, whenever he’s facing some new wave of backlash.
What do Australians profess to love about their sports stars? Confidence, a healthy disrespect of authority and an everyman appeal. They’re the characteristics that helped Shane Warne overcome multiple affairs and a drug suspension to become a living legend and one of the highest-paid cricket commentators in the country. They’re the traits that help football players accused of sexual assault maintain the backing of their clubs.
But when it comes to Kyrgios, who has been accused of none of the above, they’re interpreted very differently. “Confidence” becomes “arrogance”. “Disrespecting authority” is suddenly a negative. What’s the difference between Kyrgios and the other Australian athletes who do all the same things but don’t receive the criticism?
Maybe it’s got nothing to do with race. Maybe it is all about how he plays, his attitude. But that argument feels eerily similar to the people who said they didn’t boo Adam Goodes because he was Indigenous, only because “he staged for free kicks”.
What’s more likely is that the criticism of Kyrgios is shaped by race, but in such a particularly insidious way it’s not even apparent to those lobbing it.
Kyrgios isn’t treated with contempt because he’s “disrespectful” and refuses to bend the knee to the sporting and media elite. He isn’t treated with contempt because he’s a Greek–Malaysian man.
He’s treated with contempt because he refuses to bend the knee while being a Greek–Malaysian man. Australia can accept athletes who aren’t white, as long as they play the game and stay in their lane. As soon as they express who they really are in a way the establishment finds confronting, the country turns.
Those of us from similar backgrounds know this instinctively. That’s why we’ve been drawn to Kyrgios from the start, before we needed to be convinced by his acts of goodwill.
It’s why the crowd in John Cain Arena looks the way it does. And it’s why they cheer so loudly.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 13, 2021 as "The great showman".
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