Following his electric, but all too familiar outcome of a loss on Thursday in Indian Wells to Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios’ post-match press conference drew on the nature of the relationship between the player and the spectator. Crowds are increasingly crossing the invisible line within tennis etiquette by shouting before serves and verbally abusing players, but the criticism is just as loud off the court as it is on. If the public want to continue to be entertained, they must accept and respect players as individuals and keep themselves as spectators. End of.
It’s an unusual quandary: a professional sportsman who, underneath it, all, would seemingly rather not be professional. That, however, is the wonderful paradox of 26-year-old Nick Kyrgios, Australia’s volcanic yet gifted tennis player.
I remember the first time I saw him play live at Wimbledon in 2015 on Court Two against Canadian Milos Raonic. It was a year since he had beaten Nadal on Centre Court and drawn attention worldwide. Who was this Australian fireball, thought the public?
I was, quite simply, mesmerised. As a 14-year-old tennis fanatic, I don’t think I could quite comprehend how Kyrgios was managing to tick so many boxes: skill, style, humour, swagger and perhaps, most of all, the role of the underdog. Partner that with Raonic, who, like Kyrgios, has one of the biggest serves on the tour, and I was in for a treat.
Since 2015, Kyrgios has undoubtedly been my favourite tennis player to watch. Unsurprisingly, I get a lot of chat for this, mainly from my family and friends, but there’s an aura about him that no other player quite brings to the court. Watching him live is exhilarating; there’s no doubt that you’ll be entertained, not to mention surprised, frustrated and probably appalled, all within the space of a few games. You can get a sense of the atmosphere he creates on TV, but it’s nothing compared to being there in person.
So how can we possibly stand by a player who goes off on foul-mouthed rants to the umpire and has tantrums when the match isn’t going his way? Of course, I fully acknowledge that this side of his personality is morally wrong and I’m by no means an advocate for the unsportsmanlike conduct that spectators are all too familiar with. But beyond this and, to a large extent, alongside it, it is precisely this element of Kyrgios’ personality that we despise and makes us cringe, that equally enthrals us and gets spectators to their feet.
Whilst researching the facts for the first time I ever saw Kyrgios live, I stumbled across an article written in 2015 by Russell Jackson of The Guardian. It read “Cut Nick Kyrgios some slack – if you built the boy up, you can’t then cut him down…Australia’s enfant terrible is being hounded for all the exact traits that made his rise so compelling and enjoyable”.
Reading this article, written almost 8 years ago, was fascinating. It could have been written yesterday, for its accuracy was and will be written in Kyrgios’ legacy. He plays to entertain. When he is successful, he is praised. When he loses, he is criticised.
Kyrgios is aware of his contradicting traits, and after almost 8 years of him being in the spotlight, it’s about time that the public accept these as inevitable elements of his game, too. So why does he continue to get so much stick, then?
It also, however, means he is full of surprises, often whipping out tweeners and underarm serves, accompanied by jeers in the crowds
Most obvious is his attitude on and off the court. He has no coach and doesn’t appear to train as much as the other professional players on tour. This is one area where the public’s frustration comes in. It is precisely his lack of effort off the court which plays to his opponent’s advantage before even the first point has been played. Thus, Kyrgios almost always takes the position of the underdog. It also, however, means he is full of surprises, often whipping out tweeners and underarm serves, accompanied by jeers in the crowds.
There is no doubt that if Kyrgios were to suddenly hire a coach and agree to train on the same spectrum as someone like Nadal, he would win Grand Slams. But as Nadal said back at Wimbledon 2019 regarding Kyrgios’ potential: “if, if, if, it doesn’t exist”. There is no point in hypothesising. And realistically speaking, Kyrgios will most likely never win a Grand Slam Singles title. He managed at the Australian Open this January with friend Thanasi Kokkinakis in the Men’s Doubles event, but the challenge of a Singles title does not motivate Kyrgios, and this is something he has openly commented on upon. He is not Rafa, Novak or Roger, nor does he want to be. The media, crowds and other players on the tour need to accept this.
His unapologetically unconventional manner is not to everyone’s tastes. He doesn’t play tennis how my parents were brought up to play and God forbid we mention how our grandparents used to play. Again, it is this exact break from traditional tennis that is addictive and captures crowds.
In his press conference on Thursday, Kyrgios said “I don’t see any other matches getting this kind of hype. As soon as we [Nadal] matched up against each other, you know, social media is going nuts…”. Tennis needs Nick, Nick doesn’t need tennis.
“I feel like I’m helping this [sport] more, I’m creating more attention”, continued Kyrgios.
The issue of spectators calling out just as players are serving has arisen slowly over the past few years. Most notable was during the Australian Open, with out-of-control crowds heckling players from all angles. During Indian Wells, Naomi Osaka was at the receiving end of a spectator shouting “Naomi, you suck”, reducing her to tears. Voicing his opinion on this topic, Kyrgios argued
“it’s just this generation […] everyone feels like their opinion is valid. When you’re a spectator and you’re watching professionals play tennis you should just be quiet. Just sit on your seat and watch me play tennis. They think that they have some sort of right to scream out to players like they did to Osaka the other night […] we’re only human, we’re not some sort of superhuman with armour. Sometimes I do throw a racket and it may get close to someone, like I’m not perfect. I’m going out there competing in the heat for three hours for them, like I came out there to play for them […] it affects people, it affects Osaka, it affected me for years. How can you hate on someone for just trying to be different or just going about it differently?”
Kyrgios is one of a kind
Kyrgios is one of a kind. Whether crowds like it or not, he isn’t changing his style anytime soon. The unspoken social contract between the spectator and the player, however, must be maintained and understood. The players must continue to play, and the spectators must continue to watch. We wouldn’t want to imagine a Nick Kyrgios playing to an empty stadium.
Having beaten Frenchman Mannarino in the first round of the Miami Open, Kyrgios now faces 5th seed Rublev on Friday 25th March as well as continuing his doubles success with Thanasi Kokkinakis. Tune in for some guaranteed entertainment.
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