Rocky journey from future No.1 to "most reviled man in tennis"
Nick Kyrgios went from rising future No.1 to “the most reviled man in tennis” in 2015. Can our wayward tennis villain stop with the circus and get back to the circuit?
So, did we all swipe left on Nick Kyrgios after his vulgar sledge-heard-round-the world? In case you were in a coma, “[Thanasi] Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that,” Kyrgios muttered in Montreal last August against Stan Wawrinka. (Only, he didn’t tell the out-of-earshot Wawrinka, which was probably fortunate, as an on-court decking could have been the result.) Kyrgios’ sledge unleashed a firestorm on social media before the unwitting players had even left the court.
“The most reviled man in tennis,” blared Sports Illustrated. “One of the worst things I’ve seen in 40 years in the game,” said veteran Canadian tennis writer Tom Tebbutt, who was courtside.
Like many of my colleagues in the tennis media, I put down Kyrgios’ excesses to youthful exuberance and immaturity. Time would knock off his rough edges. He himself would figure out when the antics were self-destructive. The tanking at Wimbledon against Richard Gasquet? One game only, not the match. Mouthing off at umpires? Not smart, but he will learn. Hurling racquets? Ditto – a young man’s poor impulse control. No hanging offences here.
But Kyrgios lost me in Montreal. Slut-shaming a 19-year-old player crossed a new and ugly line. More broadly, the episode cast a shadow over Kyrgios’ future as one of the game’s stars. It raised questions about his temperament over the long haul. Is he more interested in headlines than titles? Is he addicted to notoriety? Did he jump the shark?
Certainly a year that began with such promise – quarter-finals at the Australian Open, a career-high No.28 ranking, a first ATP final in Portugal, a win over Roger Federer in May – was derailed by controversy. Post-Montreal, Kyrgios won five of 12 matches and ended his season in Valencia with a first-round loss to No.170 Daniel Brands.
Of course, it’s bigger than Nick Kyrgios. In this golden era of the game – when the prestige of tennis and relations between top players have never been better – his slur was as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool. Wawrinka urged the ATP, governing body of men’s tennis, to “stand up for the integrity of this sport that we have worked so hard to build.”
“Age is not an excuse,” said Rafael Nadal. “It is just about respect.” “We are not used to that kind of talk in tennis,” Federer chimed in the following week in Cincinnati. “Not great for the sport, one that many players have tried to build up and make it a good image.” Added the father of four: “We want kids to get into this sport because it’s a nice sport.”
There’s no lazier headline than Tennis Brat, no easier click-bait than Tennis Tantrum. Even in a glory era, the game is forever fighting the damaging stereotype of tennis as a world of pampered prima donnas, never mind that most champions come from humble backgrounds.
Kyrgios’ incident-rich 2015 also trashed the proud Aussie tennis tradition of champions and sportsmen, from Frank Sedgman to John Newcombe to Pat Rafter. “One of tennis’ most revered codes,” mused Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price, “may well be dead.” Spearhead in Australia’s first Davis Cup quarter-final in a decade at Darwin in July, Kyrgios was still churning through the fallout from his turbulent Wimbledon, not least the racially tinged attack from Olympic great Dawn Fraser, when he crashed in four sets to Kazakhstan’s Aleksandr Nedovyesov, ranked No.115. Worse, he blurted during the match: “I don’t want to be here.” No words could be more galling to the Aussie old guard.
No surprise that Rafter, who never wore the kid gloves as Davis Cup captain, is Kyrgios’ toughest critic – at least in public. Now high-performance manager at Tennis Australia, Rafter says his job largely entails “trying to take away that sense of entitlement” – a thinly veiled swipe at both Kyrgios and Tomic after the latter’s Wimbledon rant at Tennis Australia and resulting Davis Cup ban. “It’s about opportunity, not entitlement,” the former No.1 told The Sunday Mail in Brisbane. When Pat Rafter talks of fixing the “culture”, you know it’s not good.
Kyrgios did not spring from a vacuum. Former players with children now in the game speak of a slide in behaviour at junior tournaments, with iffy and ill-disciplined acts tolerated even by officials. Perhaps Australia as a whole feels a sense of entitlement, as a tennis power desperate to expand participation and produce top players, especially with the financial goldmine of the Australian Open.
People ask how much Kyrgios has “changed”. Answer: not much. The on-court emotion, pink Beats and NBA swagger are long-time trademarks. Kyrgios has always walked the slippery line between showmanship and gamesmanship. Previously, though, his antics mostly backfired on him; now he is disruptive and disrespectful to opponents.
Run-ins with umpires are also not new; rather the racquet-bending and F-bombs were allowed to escalate to sit-down protests and three-ways with supervisors. Kyrgios flirted with default both at the 2014 US Open and the 2015 Australian Open; sharper hearing from umpire Fergus Murphy at the latter might well have cost him his quarter-final appointment with Andy Murray.
Now officials are over-reacting in efforts to rein him in. At the Shanghai Masters against Kei Nishikori, umpire Mohamed Lahyani hit Kyrgios with a code violation for slamming a ball away after a late fault call, causing the linesman to duck. Happens all the time in the course of play. “No way was that a violation,” says a former player. “Now they’re being reactive.”
In Shanghai, as Kyrgios collected fines like confetti, world No.1 Novak Djokovic urged the wayward 20-year-old to “listen to the advice of more experienced people, especially from [Australia] – Pat Rafter, Rod Laver, all the greats [who] have made the history of this sport.” Cue Laver, who was at the event, and told Fox Sports: “He’s just got to understand that to be a champion, which he certainly has the ability to be, it’s bigger than just his game.”
Kyrgios does not lack for A-class mentors. Lleyton Hewitt, also a polarising figure in his younger years, came on board in August. (Their first event? Montreal.) Problem is heeding their advice. Kyrgios split with coach Todd Larkham a week out from Wimbledon last June. Strange timing, to put it mildly. In 2014, he split with coach Simon Rea after making the Wimbledon quarter-finals. So much for not changing a winning game.
Instead, Kyrgios allowed his family – namely mother Nill and older brother Christos – to contextualise and justify his behaviour. Christos was dropped mid-interview from a radio program for a comment even more lewd than the one that started the trouble. This from a lawyer. In the Montreal aftermath, Nill branded her son’s critics “sheep” and “moaners”. She later had to take down her Twitter account.
By all accounts, the Kyrgios clan is charming. At a Davis Cup tie in Perth in 2014, parents George and Nill sat with fans and agreed that Nick had to watch his behaviour, that he walked a fine line. They acknowledge the abstract. Post-incident, they swing into knee-jerk defence.
Even Kyrgios’ friend, Victoria Azarenka, observed that family could not be a brake on this runaway train. “I’m not saying there is good or bad parents in any case; I’m just talking in general,” said the former No.1. “When you are young and you have so much pressure on you and you are making a lot of money at this young age, it’s difficult for your parents to be a parent to you and restrict you from a lot of things. So it’s very easy to get out of control.”
For all the condemnation, there is still little sense from Kyrgios that he did much wrong. “I got some sleep last night,” he reported after the Wawrinka furore. As for the jeers and boos that greeted the newly minted villain in his next match against John Isner, which he lost in straight sets, Kyrgios claimed some surprise. “I thought we could move on,” he said, the mantra of the blithely oblivious. After one day and an anodyne Facebook apology? Seriously?
But then the game is certainly sending mixed signals to Kyrgios. At the US Open, he was given prime-time billing on Arthur Ashe Stadium for his first round against Andy Murray, ahead of Federer. Nike featured him in a splashy launch in New York – the youngest and least-credentialled name in a starry line-up that included Federer, Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe.
The Superbrat himself invited Kyrgios to play in his charity event in New York, praising his “charisma” while muting his criticism.
The ATP, it could be said, flogged Kyrgios with a wet lettuce leaf. Despite a maximum fine of $10,000 for the “egregious” incident that “reflected poorly on our sport”, plus $2500 for an “unsportsmanlike” comment to a ball kid, the governing body of the men’s game suspended a $25,000 fine and 28-day ban for six months, allowing Kyrgios to accrue another $5000 in fines during his probation period. Naturally, the stiff penalties would only be invoked after an appeals process is exhausted. And the ATP has no jurisdiction over Grand Slams and Davis Cup. Why not the sting of an immediate short ban?
Tennis Australia dropped Kyrgios from the Davis Cup semi-final against Great Britain (likely a mutual decision) and ruled him ineligible for the Newcombe Medal which he won in 2014. But he was picked for the Hopman Cup, the first year Australia is fielding two teams. Hewitt heads the other. For all its trumpeting of sportsmanship, tennis is quick to capitalise on controversy. Nothing beats box office ...
Nor has Kyrgios been totally frozen out of the locker room. The day after The Sledge he was playing cards with Jack Sock and other Gen Y peers. The travelling-caravan nature of the sport means old results and incidents are soon left behind. It is last week’s ankle strapping. Nadal dodged the controversy of teaming with Kyrgios in doubles, as advertised, at McEnroe’s Johnny Mac Project fundraiser – he took on Hewitt in singles instead. But Eugenie Bouchard (a fellow Nike stable mate) played mixed doubles with the bad boy at the US Open – “and the crowd loved them,” reports Tebbutt, on the beat of countrywoman Bouchard. “I suspect it splits on generational lines with the players.”
The forgive-and-forget ethos of tennis – where competitors share locker rooms – and Kyrgios’ early success and immaturity means it will take longer for the penny to drop. No sign it has. “He is going to learn a lesson the hard way,” observed Djokovic in Montreal.
We’re all complicit in the Kyrgios Circus. All of us – media, fans, players, officials, sponsors, pundits – are guilty of blowing sunshine up his shorts. It all started of course with his electrifying upset of Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. Ranked No.144, Kyrgios was the first teenager to take down a world No.1 since Nadal himself toppled Federer nearly a decade earlier. The strapping Aussie announced himself as the future of the game. His showmanship, booming winners and obvious love for the big stage made the legendary Rafa look beige. But Kyrgios only beat a great champion that day; he didn’t become one.
Boris Becker once said that winning Wimbledon at 17 “formed and deformed” him. In the dense chatter of the social media era, a final victory is not required for mind-bending fame and adulation; a quarter-final will do.
Kyrgios was signed up by Beats and Bonds. He became an ambassador for Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian tourism. He featured in Vogue magazine and drew 160,000 Twitter followers. A year on at Wimbledon, he returned not as the king-in-waiting, but a surly lightning-rod of controversy.
On court, Kyrgios showed signs of demanding respect rather than earning it. His beef with Wawrinka went back to their first round at Queen’s Club in June, when Kyrgios felt the Swiss accused him of faking injury. At their rematch in Montreal, Wawrinka complained to the umpire that Kyrgios was fast-serving him, not waiting for the ball boys to clear the court, when Kyrgios dropped his bombshell. “He [Wawrinka] was getting a bit lippy at me, so I don’t know, it is just in-the-moment sort of stuff,” Kyrgios told the post-match interviewer. So the 30-year-old Wawrinka, a two-time Grand Slam titleist and Davis Cup winner, was not showing sufficient respect for a pink-haired show-pony. Riiight ...
Many players are “fed up with [Kyrgios’] act,” according to Patrick McEnroe, former Davis Cup captain and head of player development in the US. “The reality is, he’s been saying inappropriate things, maybe not as bad as what he said to Wawrinka, but similar things not even under his breath, to the crowd,” said McEnroe, an analyst for ESPN, on the eve of the US Open. “That’s got to stop or else he’s going to have a very, very difficult time on the tennis court because it’s hard to live that life, travel around with the same players. You have to at least respect them and treat them appropriately on the court, otherwise you’re going to be in for a real tough, long ride.”
Kyrgios has bigger things to worry about than perceived slights from top-ten players – like strengthening his 193cm frame, avoiding more injury and putting in like a complete professional. One insider describes his work ethic as “not stellar”. He played 43 matches in 2015, for 24 wins (two of them retirements, including against Wawrinka in Montreal). His defeat of No.2 Federer in a third-set tiebreak in Madrid came two events after losing first round in Barcelona to No.192 Elias Ymer.
Already at 20, Kyrgios has had significant spells out of the game with injury, recalling another young Aussie Goliath in Mark Philippoussis. He closed down his 2014 season in September with a sore elbow yet started 2015 injured, pulling out of the Hopman Cup and playing the Australian Open with an injured back. Sidelined for six weeks in February-March, he turned his ankle in his first event back at Indian Wells and lost another month before his rejoining the tour in Barcelona.
Big men bring the firepower but also feel more the effects of attrition, especially in an era of slower courts and punishing rallies. Top-tenners Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic also had long spells out in 2015. Juan Martin Del Potro, who beat Nadal and Federer to win the 2009 US Open, is all but lost to the game at 27. So there are no guarantees for Kyrgios. Even with a long career ahead of him, it’s likely to be a fragmented one. And that’s if he puts in.
We’ve been here before, of course. Playing for redemption is a sport in itself. Several tennis champions have turned around their legacies, none more dramatically than Andre Agassi, who went from “showboating nincompoop” to beloved elder statesman and No.1 philanthropist. Jennifer Capriati, whose teenage mug shot haunted the game, made a Hallmark-worthy comeback against the odds, all the way to No.1. Serena Williams, defaulted at the 2009 US Open for her obscene threat to a lineswoman who’d foot-faulted her, has since won ten more majors and transformed into the gracious grand dame of tennis. The game is already weepy at the gaping void the 34-year-old will leave when she zips up the racquet bag for good.
So there is hope. Unlike the original, irredeemable bad boy in Jimmy Connors, and to a lesser extent Lleyton Hewitt, who won respect if not love after his combative early years, Kyrgios wants to be liked. Maybe too much. A natural showman, he insists on playing the crowd. Kyrgios doesn’t want polite applause from the stand. He seeks the energy of a seething mosh-pit.
That is what he got at the 2014 Australian Open, in a half-renovated Margaret Court Arena that added to the music-festival vibe. The stadium hummed with good-natured energy – giant beach ball bouncing around the stands, chanting and singing from Aussie and Greek groups. And Kyrgios was in his element – firing audacious winners, sprinting to a two-sets lead, content to let his opponent, Frenchman Benoit Paire, play the villain. He succumbed to cramp and lost in five sets, but everyone left delighted with the tennis version of a magic carpet ride. That Nick Kyrgios went MIA in 2015.
“The future’s as bright as his hot-pink Beats,” I wrote earlier this year, in picking Kyrgios as the No.1 in 2020. Maybe not now, after the self-inflicted dramas and shoulder-shrugging “whatevs” of 2015. But the future – however clouded – is still on Kyrgios’ racquet. He has the weapons and charisma to rule the game, and take the crowd with him. Just not the control. Not yet.
LIGHT OF DAY
Jason Day’s widowed mother, Dening, sold the family home and borrowed money from relatives to put her son into a boarding school with a golf program to save him from teenage alcoholism, and worse. Nick Kyrgios’ mother, Nill, branded his critics “sheep” and “moaners” after his Montreal disgrace.
You could hardly serve up a bigger contrast between Australia’s new bad boy and its new sporting hero. Just days after the Kyrgios melodrama in Montreal, Day won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin for his first major. Here was a champion that “Australia could be proud of” in the Pat Rafter template. Day’s performance, a record 20-under par, and victory speech had Aussies swelling with pride at the gracious winner with an inspiring back story.
Day won his next event to rise to world No.1. His example highlighted how much goodwill Kyrgios has lost, and how much ground he has to make up. Sure, Day is seven years older than Kyrgios, a lifetime in a sporting career. But the chasm in class was, ’scuse the pun, night and Day.