Tennis

When it comes to dividing the public, Nick Kyrgios is second to none among sports stars. But while he happily trades on his renowned recalcitrance, it is both his friend and his enemy in equal measure. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Nick Kyrgios and a lesson in public outrage

Nick Kyrgios reacts during his Wimbledon men’s singles final against Novak Djokovic.
Nick Kyrgios reacts during his Wimbledon men’s singles final against Novak Djokovic.
Credit: Reuters / Toby Melville

Like his press conferences, Nick Kyrgios’s tennis is often contradictory. In the same match, one can glimpse joy and venom; playfulness and death stares. One can see commitment and surrender; hustle and indifference. He can joke with ballkids, then swear at his family. Mercurial, they say. Unpredictable.

As an outsider, the most interesting thing about Nick Kyrgios is his tennis. The second most interesting thing might be his pained ambivalence about it. On the court, Kyrgios has often given the impression of indifference, even contempt. Off the court, he has explicitly stated it. “I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much,” he told The Independent in 2015. “I don’t love it. It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport.”

But even that ambivalence is mysterious. “People around the game have trouble believing Kyrgios is really as down on tennis as he claims,” the New York Times tennis writer Michael Steinberger wrote in 2016. “They figure the ambivalence is just his way of deflecting pressure.”

In the past week, after defeating Cristian Garín in the quarterfinal, a softer, more reflective Kyrgios revealed that “I just never thought I’d be at a semifinal of a grand slam, honestly, I thought my ship had sailed,” he said. “You know, I didn’t go about things great earlier in my career, and may have wasted that little window.”

He did care after all – and should we be surprised? Ash Barty was ambivalent about the game too. She quit tennis in 2014, returned in 2016, then quit again as the world’s best player at the age of 25. For all of his complaints, Kyrgios, 27, has never left the game.

“Please don’t understand me too quickly,” André Gide once wrote, and Kyrgios often seems to be asking the same of the media, even if it hasn’t always been clear that he’s understood himself so well either.

 

Such is the commentary market, that one must have an opinion. Preferably an either/or sort. The more extreme the better. And so: Nick Kyrgios is a national embarrassment; Nick Kyrgios is a heroic crusader against racism and stifling orthodoxy.

It’s tedious. Both Kyrgios’s obnoxiousness and the endless teeth-gnashing it inspires. He’s generated his own journalistic beat. He knows it, and I think he wants us to know that it’s pathetic. Maybe, in his frequent hostility to the press, Kyrgios thinks he’s offering lessons about the inanity of the media’s outrage – and he might be right – but the lessons are often oblique and petulant, and his articulacy often strangled by anger. For a long time, he’s seemed stuck in a loop of bad faith with the press. Pre-emptively caustic, the media often respond in kind.

Those press conferences are often as contradictory as his tennis. Often incoherently so. After his fourth-round match against American Brandon Nakashima, in the space of five minutes Kyrgios said both that he laughed off criticism and that he remembered everything and had “a massive chip on [his] shoulder”.

The contradictions – and hypocrisies – abound. Criticised for sarcastically applauding a failed shot of his third-round opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas, Kyrgios seemed to suggest that the decorum of tennis is absurdly restrictive (and his sarcasm laughably trivial compared to his beloved NBA, where psychological warfare is colourfully entrenched). As it was, Tsitsipas called him a “bully” and suggested there was an “evil side” to him. Evil? Kyrgios has grown up watching the swagger and trash-talk of pro basketballers. It is not easily transplanted to a sport that prohibits crowd noise during play – the larger problem might be the preciousness of the sport. But throughout the tournament, Kyrgios displayed a hair-trigger intolerance for the slightest noise and perceived infractions.

After the Tsitsipas game, which was conspicuously bitter and marked by poor behaviour from both players, the Greek player faced the press. Almost all of the questions were about Kyrgios. When it was Kyrgios’s turn, almost all of them were about… Kyrgios. The imbalance seemed unfair, or at least unreflective, and no doubt confirmed for Kyrgios his sense of persecution. For his sins – twice smashing the ball into the crowd; twice trying to smash the ball at Kyrgios’s body – fourth-seeded Tsitsipas was actually fined more than his opponent. (Kyrgios was fined for an “audible obscenity”). In a mutually spiteful game, match officials had deemed the Greek the greater offender, but the media pack didn’t see it that way.

What wasn’t remarked upon in the press conference was: 1. That while Kyrgios is often a petulant self-saboteur, he productively turned that petulance against his opponents – and never more successfully than against Tsitsipas. Within his opponent’s head, Kyrgios had lit a ruinously distracting hatred. And 2. That the quality of tennis was sensational, that Kyrgios deserved his victory and that, significantly, he seems to have added a brilliantly winning backhand to his repertoire (his backhand, previously weaker than his forehand, had more often been used defensively).

In another press conference, there was some torturous back-and-forth when a British journalist asked Kyrgios if he thought he was “above the rules” because he’d dared to reappear on court, after the match and for an interview, in red sneakers and a red hat. The questioning seemed smug and officious to me, and I wished Kyrgios had replied: “I’m above dumb rules, yes.” But he didn’t. Instead, we got this weirdly strained dialogue that had the dynamic of a righteous parent trying to prise a concession from an recalcitrant child.

In the two weeks of Wimbledon, Kyrgios was playing great tennis. He also sulked, raged and gobbed at the crowd like Sid Vicious. He was alternately spiteful, hurt and vulnerably reflective. For once, though, he seemed to be getting in other people’s heads, rather than his own. His “mouth-watering” semifinal against Rafael Nadal was dissolved when the Spaniard withdrew injured, and Kyrgios leapfrogged to his first grand slam final against the great Novak Djokovic. As this played out, it was revealed he had been charged with assaulting a former girlfriend, and summonsed to appear before the ACT Magistrates Court next month.

 

There was incredible tennis for much of the final and Kyrgios’s triumphant first set was close to sublime. At his best, he might be the world’s finest server, but those aces were just one part of a deliciously varied repertoire: fizzing backhands, delicate drop shots, ripping slices, serve-and-volley approaches and even an underarm serve played, audaciously, in his first service game. Kyrgios won the first set 6-4, and I recall only one bad shot. A famous upset seemed possible.

But Kyrgios was playing Djokovic, arguably history’s greatest returner. He can nullify his opponent’s brilliance and for almost the whole match he was implacable. He defended his baseline coolly, imperiously, covering the distance as if his arms were twice as long and his lungs twice as big. Kyrgios showed great hustle in the second set, but Djokovic was asserting his dominance. Soon, it was one set each.

Until now, Kyrgios had been quiet, composed. But in the third set, the infamous irritation began – and so too the swelling of the persecution complex. Everyone, it seemed, was cruelly arrayed against him: he complained about the crowd, about linesmen, about the umpire. And if the media projects an awful amount upon Kyrgios, he projects an awful lot upon his player’s box, where his family sat and absorbed a steady stream of abuse for not, it appeared, being adequately supportive. They had great seats, sure, but the hardest job of the day: to sit and cop the irrational spray of their beloved and not betray any flicker of exasperation.

The young Prince George, yet to kick his nose-picking habit, learnt some salty new words to add to his Queen’s English, while Kyrgios angrily beseeched the umpire to eject a drunken heckler. Asked what she looked like, Kyrgios replied: “It’s the one who looks like she’s had about 700 drinks, bro.” So much for the absurdly restrictive decorum of tennis, and you felt, for a second, as if Kyrgios wouldn’t resume play until the local constabulary were called.

But it wasn’t a full, nuclear Kyrgios meltdown. Obnoxious and self-pitying, sure, but he hustled until the end – and came within a whisker of taking the fourth set and securing a fifth. He played well – magically, sometimes – but had come up against one of the greatest of all time, a man in his 32nd grand slam final.

When it was all over, Kyrgios retreated back to his safe place: shrugging nonchalance. Asked if he was hungry for more grand slam final appearances, Kyrgios said: “Absolutely not, I’m so tired.”

It was played for laughs and so I hope it was insincere. Though he owes me – us – nothing, I hope he does make it again. For all of it, the tennis is just too good.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "A talent for controversy".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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