Is Nick Kyrgios bad for Tennis?

As The Independent mildly put it, Nick Kyrgios is “something of a magnet for controversy”. Since bursting onto the scene at Wimbledon in 2014, where he defeated Richard Gasquet after saving nine match points and later delivered a huge upset over Rafael Nadal, Kyrgios has invariably been at the forefront of the media’s attention. Perhaps the moment he struck that half volley between his legs and sent it shooting away for a winner past Nadal (if you haven’t had the unmitigated pleasure of witnessing it here it is: it was clear to us that we had, not only a huge talent on the tour, but an equally huge enigma.

At the time I think many of us found it preposterous that a 19-year-old could exude such utter confidence and self-assurance on a tennis court when facing Rafael Nadal. Indeed, Nadal had suffered early round exits at Wimbledon for the past two years but at that time, the Spaniard was the #1 in the world; Kyrgios, #144. Perhaps it was the audacious shots such as the one above, perhaps it was the ferocious velocity of the Australian’s forehand, or perhaps it was just the refreshing disregard Kyrgios seemed to have for being consistent or solid that made him so compelling to watch. There was no attempt at maintaining a “poker face” and he quite freely chuntered to himself or slumped his shoulders in disagreement with loose shots. But it almost felt like this was all done tongue-in-cheek; just part of the characterisation of his enthralling act. He was Centre Court’s ostentatious showman, and they were captivated.

Since that day, Kyrgios has conjured similarly outrageous performances. Coupled with his animated on-court mannerisms and witty remarks (such as demanding where a few exiting crowd members were going midway in the fifth set of his Australian Open 2015 match versus Andreas Seppi), Nick Kyrgios on a tennis court is something to savour and enjoy. However, as recent events have underlined, there are certainly a few caveats to Kyrgios’ character.

“Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend,” Kyrgios said to Wawrinka on the 12th of August in Montreal, “Sorry to tell you that mate.” Wawrinka himself did not hear the sledge, but television microphones did and since then there have been a torrent of comments condemning it, not least from Wawrinka himself who said on Twitter: “So disappointing to see a fellow athlete and colleague be so disrespectful in a way I could never even imagine.” Five days later and Roger Federer has been quoted by the Cincinnati Enquirer on the controversy. “I think we all agree that he definitely crossed the line by a long shot,” he said. “We’re not used to that kind of talk in tennis. I know in other sports it’s quite common, maybe normal. Not in our sport, really.”

But what the Swiss says here raises a valid point. In various other sports, there have been comments of a much more derogatory and serious nature: Chelsea defender John Terry’s alleged racist comments towards QPR defender Anton Ferdinand in 2011, for example. In comparison, Kyrgios’ comment is arguably quite tame, a view that Australia’s Davis Cup captain Wally Masur appears to hold and has said that the controversy has been blown out of proportion, telling Fox Sports News that “It wasn’t the scenario I had in mind when I read the headlines.”

In a sense, the 20-year-old has been victim to the respectability of the tennis game and the expectations of player’s behaviour. As Rafael Nadal said in his interview on the recent controversies, tennis is a “gentleman’s sport” about “respect”. Even in the tightest of rivalries (Djokovic-Federer, Murray-Djokovic, etc) the players generally regard each other in a fairly civilised manner. But if players are constantly respectful of each other, is that impacting the mainstream popularity of tennis because of a lack of controversy? On this occasion Kyrgios, needless to say, has shown such contempt for his opponent that it is unacceptable. Yet controversy, dispute, a bit of arrogance – as long as it causes no deeply personal offence – is surely all the better for tennis, and Nick Kyrgios embodies all of those things.

Following his five set win over Ivo Karlovic, Kyrgios was accused of delivering a cocky televised post match interview. “It was a good comeback from you in that fourth set,” the interviewer said to him. “Because you know, Newc [Channel 7 commentator John Newcombe] said in the commentary ‘Lose this one, you’re into a fifth, anything can happen.’” To which Kyrgios replied: “Well, yeah, that’s usually what happens when you lose a fourth set, you go into a fifth one.” These sorts of Kyrgios antics are the ones that make you smile, and are not even the slightest bit unsavoury. In fact, dare I say it is surely much better to see a player speak their mind rather than manufacture the polite yet aloof comments that sports people persistently conjure. Even the diamond earrings and the streak of bleached hair (with the recent addition of a pink stripe) are refreshingly outlandish. Perhaps I am flattering him a little too much, but the tennis community should still not constantly wag their finger at him. Condemning his recent actions is perfectly fine, but for just delivering an arrogant interview and straying away from the stereotypically docile sportsperson, is petty.

There are certainly no rivalries as heated as those of the 80s. Many of these were due to the involvement of John McEnroe; with the way Kyrgios is going, couldn’t he also ignite rivalries? His personal sledge directed at Wawrinka is not the way to do it,. However, condemn it or not, all eyes will be on the two the next time they meet on a tennis court. Kyrgios is no tennis messiah, but in his live-wire unpredictability lies the potential to deliver the final piece that this glorious generation of tennis is missing: some inoffensive, yet nevertheless eyebrow-raising, controversy.

PLUS: Vekic and Kokkinakis respond….

It is easy to forget that Wawrinka and Kyrgios are not alone in being caught up in the media whirlwind of the past week. On the 19th of August, a week after Kyrgios’ on-court comments, Vekic has finally spoken to the press regarding the matter. “It’s not easy but I’m trying to focus on tennis and my next match,” Donna Vekic said to The Province. “I haven’t spoken to Kyrgios. But it’s a very disappointing thing to be happening in our sport and I hope it won’t happen again because it’s not a very good image for our sport.”

Kokkinakis, who was involved in a fiery encounter with Ryan Harrison in the Cincinnati qualifying where the two squared up to each at the end of the match, has also finally spoken publicly on the issue, admitting that he had suffered a few sleepless nights since the incident whilst echoing the views of many others that what Kyrgios did was wrong. Kokkinakis and Harrison have since escaped fines. The latter publicly sledged his opponent for the incident in qualifying.

Main Photo: