It is a curious thing, being an outrageously talented Australian tennis player. It brings with it puerility, prima donna tantrums, and sometimes inexcusably bad behaviour. It creates controversy, causes distractions, sometimes delights and often exasperates. Very often, it results in almost criminal profligacy of natural talent, leaving wistfulness, anger and a feeling of what might have been in its wake. It entertains generously, but frustrates in equal measure. It gave us Pat Cash and Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Bernard Tomic, and now, Nick Kyrgios.
Kyrgios isn’t unique, as he may well fancy himself to be. He’s merely the newest in a list of dozens of tennis players who had talent to burn, and then found a way to burn all of it. Showing emotion on the court and getting frustrated isn’t unusual; most players do that regularly. Keeping a lid on it, swatting away all distractions to achieve a goal pursued with single-minded determination, now that is truly rare.
If tennis rankings were based on grit and mental fortitude, we would never have heard of this 20-year-old. It is testament to the enormity of his talent and potential that he is one of the hottest properties in tennis right now, and viewed as arguably the face of the new generation once Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray bid their farewells. On the basis of what we’ve seen from Kyrgios so far, he will be a poor replacement.
There is a margin (and it isn’t even that fine) between entertaining and enthralling crowds; being ‘different’, as appears to be so important to him; being passionate and not caring to show it; and simply disrespecting everything the game stands for, be it the ball kids, the umpires, the crowd, or the opponent.
His conduct in his fourth-round loss to Richard Gasquet was one of the low points for a tennis tournament steeped in tradition and history, but for a flickering moment disgraced by the antics of a self-absorbed young man who did not appreciate where he was, or understand his responsibilities towards the stakeholders of the sport that makes him what he is today.
What was he so aggrieved about? Umpire James Keothavong had rightly warned him for audible obscenity, and as a reaction to that, it seems, Kyrgios decided he was going to tank the next on Richard Gasquet’s serve. At 15-0, he walked across as Gasquet was serving, and slowly, defiantly, put the ball into the net, walking across to the deuce court. At 30-0, he walked away from where Gasquet was serving before the ball even landed in the box.
It would not have been unreasonable for the crowd now to have started indulging in audible obscenity, but they opted, instead, for indignant booing. It was the least Kyrgios deserved. Tickets for Wimbledon aren’t cheap, and most people don’t have the kind of money Kyrgios does. Crowds don’t pay to see a petulant, selfish teenager strut around with a bloated sense of entitlement.
It is hard not to feel sorry for Frenchman Gasquet, either, a hard-working, well-respected veteran on tour, who, like Kyrgios, was billed as a future World number one since the age of 9. Described by Barry Cowan as ‘naturally more talented than Federer’, he first won a Grand Slam match at 15, and was seventh in the world before his 21st birthday. He failed to live up to his billing – not because he indulged in the sort of antics on display from Kyrgios last night (Gasquet is as introverted, shy and polite as they come) but because he lacked the ruthlessness and mental steel that characterises the best players.
What would he have made of the histrionics emanating from the other side of the court? Would he have wanted to tell Kyrgios to pull his head in if he wanted to have a more successful career than Gasquet seems to have managed?
The storm that kicked off might yet prove to be a blessing in disguise for Kyrgios. He might be reminded that there is a limit to how much tennis fans will forgive, and the line is indelibly drawn at disrespecting the sport.
Lleyton Hewitt only began to be respected and liked when he cut out his nasty streak, becoming known for being amongst the hardest working, most honest professionals on the tour. Tomic already seems like he has blown his chance to be a top player in future, and is no longer paid attention to by many people, even in Australia. Thanasi Kokkinakis is coming on in leaps and bounds, and seems to have all the likeability and level-headedness Kyrgios appears to be deprived of.
Nick might find that poor sportsmanship doesn’t get you very far. It’s not rebellious, and it’s certainly not cool. If he or any of his support staff think otherwise, they, unlike John McEnroe, simply cannot be serious.