Kyrgios Undercut By Behavioural Issues

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.

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  1. Jonathan, I too am not a fan of Kyrgios’ immature behaviour on court. To be fair, he has shown many facets personality-wise, including great respect to his opponents in tweets and interviews.

    The definition of hyper-masculinity is: “Hypermasculinity is a psychological term for the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality”.

    I find it notable that all of these traits may be attributed to Rafa Nadal, considered one of the great gentleman on court. His own symbol, the bull, is one of the most virulent masculine symbols of all, after all – and it fits his on-court persona perfectly.

    So, the equation of immaturity and the violation of the codes of conduct in the sporting world with hyper-masculinity is a false one, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for the reply. I don’t think a Wikipedia definition of hyper-masculinity does justice to its nuances. For me, it’s more a sociological than psychological phenomenon. And, in the case of Kyrgios (and not Nadal), it’s applied to understand why society explains away poor behaviour because we have been trained to accept certain things from men as inevitable, as natural. My contention is that the “boys will be boys” business is nonsense and Kyrgios can do better in how he interacts with people and presents himself. More so, we should expect him to be able to. This is not to say he is a bad person or that he doesn’t have good qualities. But, to date, he has fallen short. I think there’s lots to complicate if we are to look at how the term is often used with respect to men of colour – to stereotype them as violent – but that’s for another time.

  3. I agree with you on the fact that women are held unjustly to a higher standard. However, this whole Nick-should-be-a-boring-square-boyscout schtick feels jaded, old and slightly familiar: Oh yeah, people were saying the exact same thing about McEnroe, and he went on to win a couple of Slams.

    Interesting is that your examples on swearing women involve Madison Keys and Serena Williams. AS IF white women don’t swear on court. And why single out Keys as a goody twoshoes? She doesn’t need the attention and she doesn’t need to be your equal-opportunity shield neither.
    BTW, thanks for displaying racism by failing to notice the OTHER double standard in tennis and society in general: the one against girls/women of color. Black girls, completely unbeknowst to white groups of course, are taught from a young age to behave “proper” because otherwise they’d be labeled sluts, bitches and worse still: Uppity! See the docile behaviour of Zina Garrison c.s. So when Serena exploded it was because of a lifetime of Microaggressions against her, her sister, and all the other black women on tour. Read up on or go on being a Mr. Man

    So, I disagree with you: while saying ‘fuck you’ on court is not the best thing, it’s not the worst behaviour neither. That would be gamesmanship, or shrieking loudly. When a girl or a woman does it, I propose we should be as forgiving as you imagine society is towards Kyrgios.

    Actually, your whole article seems like a “down with the UPPITY colored guy” thing: it’s an attempt at psychological warfare, trying to upset Kyrgios by focusing on the non-essentials.

    1. Psychological warfare? Because Kyrgios is likely to read this and be deeply upset by it?

      Certainly there is much to be said about the vicious racism directed toward women of color who act ‘out of line’ (and the writer has addressed this quite a bit elsewhere). You seem to assume he’s not a PoC. So, is it a missed opportunity in this piece? Maybe. But racist? Fight the real enemy.

    2. The double standard black women face in how they are perceived by society is important stuff, so thank you for bringing that up. I also invite you to check out my podcast where my co-host and I delved into that issue quite extensively with regards to Serena’s return to Indian Wells:

      Madison was used as a point of comparison for obvious reasons: her similarity in age to Kyrgios, their comparably deep runs at the Australian Open, and their statuses as undeniable future stars.

      As for the rest? A whole lot of assumptions and false equivalence.

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