This column first appeared in Malta Today
Wimbledon this year was the talk of the town as much because of the thrilling tennis as it was about the bad boy behaviour of Australian player Nick Kyrgios.
Now some will argue that it is precisely because of his unpredictable antics that so many are tuning in to watch tennis. Like John McEnroe before him, Kyrgios has added spice, unconventionality and that holding on to the edge of one’s seat feeling of anticipation: “oh my God, what will he do/say next?”. Apart from his undisputed talent as a player, it is his volatile temperament which is drawing the crowds, and viewers, with many claiming that he has made the game more interesting and entertaining.
I can understand the attraction, especially for those who do not play the game. After all, many still regard tennis (and more specifically Wimbledon) as a rather ‘boring’ event in which well-dressed, fedora-wearing spectators murmur ‘well done’ and clap politely after each point as they move their heads back and forth watching the rallies, while gently fanning themselves under the British sun. The strawberries and cream, the Royal Box, wearing tennis whites, the grass courts, the strict protocols, are all part of the traditions of this 125-year-old institution which separate it from any other Grand Slam. It is what makes it unique, but it is also what makes it appear like a snobbish, elitist event.
Spectators at other major tournaments tend to be more rowdy but here, everything is geared towards keeping the sport as it was meant to be, ‘a gentleman’s game’ in which the strict etiquette of sometimes unwritten rules are understood and upheld by one and all. You do not speak or shout while someone is serving or in the middle of a point, and spectators are shushed if they are audibly disturbing a player. Likewise a player is supposed to accept line calls and umpire rulings gracefully and not engage in slanging matches.
Placed in the middle of all these ‘do’s and don’ts’, Kyrgios is like a stick of dynamite which has been hurled into the middle of centre court as everyone runs for their lives. He yells back at spectators (and even spits at them), he is deliberately obnoxious and annoys his opponents to get under their skin and he gets into heated arguments with the umpire when he does not agree with a call. Perhaps the arrogance and the bad temper are all part of what makes him a top athlete; he might need to vent his frustration to let off steam so that he can pump up his adrenaline and perform better. Some of it, I suspect, is also a carefully contrived act, to rattle his opponents while inwardly he remains cool and collected, ready to strike once he has them off balance. This mind game tactic worked with Stefanos Tsitsipas who called Kyrgios a bully at the post-game press conference, but left Novak Djokovic, who has nerves of steel, completely unfazed.
And while I do not mind a bit of unconventional behaviour, there came a point during this year’s Wimbledon when he stopped being mildly amusing, firing off at the mouth for the crowd’s entertainment, and turned into something which I found quite disturbing. There is something about his simmering rage which makes me uneasy – I was half expecting him to punch someone – and you never quite know what will trigger him. In this particular instance he started yelling from his seat towards his own ‘box’ – which is his team of people made up of family and friends, and normally a coach (except Kyrgios doesn’t have one, because he says he would “never put that burden on someone.”)
So who was he shouting at, berating them for not giving him enough support? Seated in the box was his father Giorgos, his sister Halimah and girlfriend Costeen Hatzi, as well as his manager, Daniel Horsfall, and physio Will Maher. He mocked them for their lack of reaction and failure to encourage him during crucial points. Echoing my own thoughts, broadcaster Dan Walker tweeted, “I’ve still not worked out whether Kyrgios was shouting at his family, his coach, the crowd, himself or just everyone.”
Whoever was the target of his outburst, it was embarrassing and humiliating to watch his torrent of abuse and if I were in that box I would have probably walked out. They, however, all stayed, probably used to his behaviour by now and are willing to put up with it. My question is whether this is just enabling a man who clearly has a lot of issues and is like a ticking time bomb, ready to go off. With his abrupt mood swings, one minute in a rage, and then turning on the charm when needed, he reminded me of men who abuse their girlfriends or wives, who can schmooze their way out of any situation. In fact, I was not that surprised to learn he is being charged with assaulting a former girlfriend and is due to appear in Court next month.
Some dismiss all this as Kyrgios just being his ‘crazy self’, saying that this is precisely what makes him so watchable. But why are we so ready to give bad boys like him a free pass simply because it’s ‘entertaining’? His televised antics watched by millions are the antithesis of how one should behave on court, and yet we expect youngsters learning the sport not to smash their rackets and to be good losers. Does this mean that as a society we are ready to forgive anything as long as it’s a top athlete because they are under such extreme pressure to perform and win? Told he would receive a fine for breaking the all white dress code by wearing his red Jordans, Kyrgios replied, “I do what I want”. In fact, after the final, he made a point of donning a red cap to receive his runner-up silverware from Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. His deliberate flouting of the rules speaks volumes about this man, and it is no coincidence that he was one of the few players to support Djokovic’s failed attempt to enter the Australian Open without being vaccinated. It is this sense of entitlement, the arrogance, the belief that, ‘ordinary rules do not apply to me’ which, for me, make these otherwise great players, very unlikeable as people. The fact that many fans adore them and defend them at all costs precisely because of their contrary, rebellious natures is another matter.
The one man who could probably give us an insight into all this is the notorious McEnroe (who these days is a much more mellow and mild-mannered tennis commentator):
“….the guy doesn’t need the coach, the guy is a genius out there the way he plays. He needs Sigmund Freud to come out of the grave and somehow figure out a way to keep this guy going for a couple of years because we could use him. I get a lot of what’s going on here more than most people. He’s a good kid, the players like him, he’s well liked in the locker room, he does a lot of charity work. But he’s got demons you know, in a way – we all have this fear of failure and it’s a question of how you best deal with it.”
It’s significant that McEnroe mentioned Freud, albeit tongue-in-cheek. During his Wimbledon commentary, he had joked about how all these young players now also have a ‘mental coach’, i.e. a psychologist, as part of their team. “We didn’t have all this back in my day, you had a coach and that’s it”, he said. And while it might sound like young athletes are being treated like precious snowflakes these days, on the other hand, if anyone could benefit from someone to “work out his demons”, it’s a player like Kyrgios. The alternative will be that he will never reach his full potential despite being undeniably one of the best players in tennis at the moment.
The other more serious alternative is that one day he will just snap, causing harm not only to others, but possibly even himself.