Nick Kyrgios continues to make good on the abundant talent he has showcased thus far in his short career. This week’s 3-set win over Roger Federer is the latest height reached in the midst of his steep climb up the ATP ranks these past 18 months. Kyrgios has also been able to ride the tide of support from an Australian fan base hungry for their next great tennis star. He is on the cusp of being considered a top-class player. Where Kyrgios needs serious improvement is his conduct on court; a string of decimated rackets and audible obscenities have drawn the ire of the ATP and resulted in code violations. At his current pace, Kyrgios runs the risk of estranging himself from tennis fans who would otherwise welcome the many gifts he brings to the sport.
Kyrgios’ hype is not without merit; the 20-year-old scored eye-opening wins over Rafael Nadal at last year’s Wimbledon and against Roger Federer this week in Madrid. The young Aussie began 2014 ranked #183 and currently sits at #35 after reaching the finals last week in Portugal. In spite of playing only 14 ATP tour-level events since the start of 2014, Kyrgios bagged ranking points in bunches due to reaching the Wimbledon and Australian Open quarterfinals and winning three Challenger events. Even more impressive is his re-emergence after prolonged absences (due to injury) to score wins seemingly at will; his Australian Open charge in January came after missing the final months of the 2014 season. He repeated that this clay season after missing a further three months cumulatively after his Melbourne run.
In only his second tournament since reaching the quarterfinals in Australia, Kyrgios earned his first ever ATP World Tour final last week at the Estoril Open. It was a seminal moment in his career, but one that almost didn’t happen, after Kyrgios came close to being defaulted in his opening match against Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Having already earned two code violations, one for an audible obscenity and a second for racquet abuse, he was fortunate that the ball he launched out of the stadium during the deciding tiebreak went unnoticed by the umpire. Last year at the U.S. Open, he was almost defaulted from his second round match versus Andreas Seppi for similar outbursts.
Is it just a matter of bad optics for Kyrgios? John McEnroe and Andy Murray are two ATP stars whose profanity featured heavily in their careers. Both managed to make their “fiery personalities” more of an endearing facet of their games than something which bogged down their images in the long term. The danger for Kyrgios is that he will alienate fans before his results outweigh the toll these violations can take on his career. At this young stage of his career, the frequency of these offenses–-coupled with his blasé attitude–- create a friction against the goodwill generated by his on-court prowess. Especially in this era of ATP all-time greats, where tennis fans tend to be staunchly aligned to one of the so-called “Big Four,” there is little room for new players to break through those allegiances.
Kyrgios finds himself in this situation, in part, because he has been socialized into embodying hyper-masculinity. It might do some good to consider the reception a WTA player would receive should she behave in the same manner as Kyrgios. A double standard is likely at play with those who would excuse Kyrgios’ antics as mere folly of youth. Imagine if Madison Keys smashed and cursed her way to the semifinals of the Australian Open? Would the tennis media be so forgiving, and herald her as the next coming of tennis greatness? Likely not. The disappointing reality is that society, particularly North American society, holds women to higher standards in the public domain than it does men.
Did anybody excuse Serena Williams’ U.S. Open tirades by saying, “girls will be girls?” Aggression is a quality valued in men but deemed distasteful when exhibited by women. When tennis fans and media say things like “he’s such a character” or “he has an eccentric personality,” these are coded ways of excusing bad behaviour by men. Meanwhile, society is more ready to label women as bitches, cold, and stand-offish. There is greater elasticity in the range of acceptable behaviours afforded men. Why is Kyrgios is so often referred to as “fiery” instead of something with a more negative connotation? It is precisely because these biases are so deeply engrained that the narratives surrounding men and women in tennis should be interrogated more intently.
Complicating this issue is the fact that the ATP does not have the strongest track record of consistently meting out punishment to players who step out of line. Fabio Fognini is a chief offender, whose apathy towards the Tour’s Code of Conduct has been likely cemented by the often haphazard and minuscule fines he has received over the years. What incentive do Fognini or Kyrgios have to “pull up their socks” when the ramifications, much like those for men in society writ large, are but a mere slap on the wrist? Perhaps, in Kyrgios’ case, the erratic handling of his infractions may be a conscious decision by the Tour; maybe the ATP, aware of his potential to draw new audiences, is willing to turn a blind eye in some instances?
In Kyrgios’ defence, he is playing in an era of tennis dominated by some of the sport’s greatest ever showmen, and so his brand of tennis will be compared to the likes of Federer and Nadal, who manage to also exhibit high-level sportsmanship. As a young player, this is a battle of optics he will never win. Still, his youth and flare are an asset for his #NKRising brand. He must now find a way to harness his hyper-masculinity into something more consistently productive for his image and that of the ATP Tour. At his current rate of smashed rackets, audible obscenities, and code violations, the unfortunate result is Kyrgios undercut by behavioural issues which serve to alienate large swaths of the tennis viewing public more attuned to the tempered excellence of its current greats.