“The first law of tennis is that every player must be a good sportsman and inherently a gentleman.” —Bill Tilden, 1920s superstar.
“I used to carry on like an idiot. [Now] I think it’s funny when somebody freaks out.” — 20-time major winner Roger Federer, who took anger management classes as a teenager and would go on to receive the ATP sportsmanship award 13 times (2003).
“Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad.” — The Euripides maxim that Dr. Walter Robert Johnson, coach and mentor of young Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and many promising African Americans, used often to promote calm and dignified behaviour on the court.
Great talent is a terrible thing to waste. Nick Kyrgios has likely never heard of Frank Kovacs, the late 1930s and early 1940s player nicknamed the Clown Prince. In those bygone amateur days, Kovacs was called “the greatest player in the world who never won a big tournament.” Like Kyrgios, the immensely gifted Californian could overpower opponents, though he also could never resist the temptation to showboat with high-risk trick shots, regardless of the score. The tall, handsome Kovacs, more grinner than sinner, would dispute line calls, heckle opponents and disrupt matches with his antics. But the crowd and press still loved him, even when he tanked. In the acclaimed history book Sporting Gentlemen , A. Digby Baltzell wrote, “Kovacs was a beautiful player who often clowned around while finding 35 ways to lose a match he should have won.”
Today only serious students of tennis history know about the happy-go-lucky Kovacs because his name seldom appears in the record books. He did reach the 1941 U.S. Championships final where Bobby Riggs trounced him. And he won the 1951 World Pro singles title over Pancho Segura by making a left-handed shot on championship point. But those are his only claims to fame in a woefully underachieving career.
Unlike the popular Clown Prince who enjoyed entertaining far more than winning and had no regrets, the polarising Kyrgios is a tortured soul. After losing in the US Open third round to Roger Federer a year ago, the then 23-year-old Australian confessed, “I have been around for about four years now. I have barely done anything. I think I can do a lot more…. It’s all mental with me, I think.”
That long-overdue insight was the understatement of the year and of his disappointing career. Kyrgios’ greatest achievement: being one of only two men to have defeated Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in his first meeting with the living legends. (The other is Lleyton Hewitt.) Those sensational early victories, most notably his shocking 2014 Wimbledon upset over Nadal, raised expectations that someday Kyrgios would also capture Grand Slam titles and rank No. 1. Neither expectation, though, has come close to fruition. In 24 appearances at the majors, he’s yet to advance past the quarterfinals, he’s ranked no higher than No. 13 (back in October 2016), and he’s won no Masters titles and only six overall.
Inexplicably, No. 29-ranked Kyrgios doesn’t have a coach, despite the urging of friends and experts. “The different coaches he’s had have had trouble getting through to him and getting him to do the right thing,” former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe told The New York Post a year ago. “It’s incredibly unusual for a player at this level to not have a coach... but he is unwilling to accept criticism and have a long-term plan.”
To his credit, Kyrgios has sought psychological help. “I was obviously struggling with a couple of things on and off the court this year, so it hasn’t been easy,” he confided last year. “But I’m starting to see some psychologists and trying to get on top of my mental health. I probably left it a little too long. But I’ve been doing that and I feel more open about talking about it. I don’t feel like I’ve got to hide that sort of stuff anymore.” Their advice, however, has seemingly gone unheeded. Or perhaps, he can’t heed it because his on-court demons are so incapacitating.
Kyrgios’ short pro career has been lowlighted by a long list of misdemeanours. During a 2015 Montreal match changeover, a courtside microphone picked up Kyrgios telling Stan Wawrinka that fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis had slept with WTA Tour player Donna Vekic, Wawrinka’s girlfriend. For that offence, Kyrgios was fined $10,000, the maximum allowed under ATP Tour rules.
Worst sports sin
The worst on-court sin a professional athlete can commit is not trying to win — tanking, in tennis parlance. At the 2016 Shanghai Masters, the rocket-serving Kyrgios shamefully tapped a serve over the net and walked away from one of Mischa Zverev’s serves. For failing to give a full effort, unsportsmanlike conduct and verbal abuse of a spectator during his shocking 6-1, 6-3 loss to the German qualifier, Kyrgios was fined $41,000 and suspended for eight weeks.
The Kyrgios rap sheet goes depressingly on and on. But even his severest critics have been entertained by his amazing shot-making. “Tweeners” — back-to-the net, between-the-legs passing shots — have become commonplace nowadays, but Kyrgios has taken daredevilry to a new level with between-the-legs, half-volley winners and look-away, then put-away overheads. His diverse repertoire also features diabolically spinning drop shots and the extremes of 138-mph second serves and 38-mph underhanded, trick first serves. When these audacious, seemingly crazy shots work, Kyrgios looks like a genius. When they fail, he looks like an idiot.
Sometimes Kyrgios takes shots, literally, at his opponents. At Wimbledon, he intentionally whacked a short-range forehand at Nadal’s midsection, which the Spaniard barely blocked with his racquet. An unapologetic Kyrgios, later said, “I won the point... I mean, the dude has got how many Slams, how much money in the bank account? He can take a ball to the chest, bro.” An angry Nadal differed, saying, “The history of this sport is about respect, playing fair. When Nick hits a ball like this, it’s dangerous.” This incident was a close call ethically, too, because players are taught to aim certain passing shots at the body of opponents. Not defensible, however, were the cheap shots Kyrgios took at Djokovic. “I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked. He just wants to be like Roger [Federer],” Kyrgios told The New York Times . “I feel like he just wants to be liked so much that I just can’t stand him. This whole celebration thing that he does after matches, it’s like so cringeworthy. The celebration just kills me.”
Away from competition, though, this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde expresses his kind and generous side in felicitous ways. Most notably, his NK Foundation gives underprivileged kids in the Melbourne area a sporting chance to achieve their dreams and to take shelter if necessary. In a heartfelt message on his website ( nkfoundation.com.au ), Kyrgios writes, “For the first time, I feel like there is a reason for what I am doing. Tennis is a great life — we are well paid and the perks are pretty good — but it can feel empty if you’re just doing it for the money. I now know what it’s all for. When I work on the NK Foundation and our Melbourne facility, I cast my mind forward to all the disadvantaged kids I will be helping. I’m playing for them now.”
Kyrgios is a huge hit with kids during tennis clinics at ATP tournaments. He’s also played table tennis with them and at the recent Cincinnati event, he sweetly handed a ball to a young girl in the stands. “I have always been pretty nice to… people and to kids,” said Kyrgios. “I was just brought up like that, to be honest.”
While his on-court antics have not endeared Kyrgios to some players, he’s affable off the court. “He’s happy-go-lucky [and] jokes around in the locker room,” Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone told The New York Post . “The kid enjoys life.”
“Good guy” side
Back home in Canberra, Kyrgios showed his “good guy” side again last April. Spotting a disabled car, he joined two people who stopped to help the motorist. Kyrgios modestly downplayed his Good Samaritan role, tweeting, “This sort of stuff shouldn’t be noticed. It’s an everyday thing, anytime.” But Scott Anderson tweeted, “Guy hops out of the car to help and it’s Nick Kyrgios. So, my girlfriend, her mate and Nick Kyrgios push this woman’s car home. Despite being on the way home from training and then helping push a car down a Canberra street, he takes a pic with them and then gets back in the car and goes home. Nick Kyrgios: good guy.”
But the “bad guy” in his split personality reappeared at the Italian Open in May. After Kyrgios notched an excellent win over No. 14 Daniil Medvedev in the first round, he snapped in his next match when a spectator moved in his sightline. “I’m f**king done... F**king three times, bro,” he ranted. “You are walking across the court as I’m serving, do you understand that? It’s bulls**t…. Why would I clap? I’m giving 100 percent and having to deal with f**king idiots like him.”
With No. 76 Casper Ruud leading 6-3, 6-7 (5), 2-1, the agitated Aussie got hit first with a ball abuse warning, then a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, and finally a game penalty for more unsportsmanlike conduct. When the umpire defaulted him, Kyrgios stalked off the court and threw a chair on the red clay, as the crowd booed. His fit of rage cost him his $33,635 tournament prize money and 45 ATP points.
“Expect the unexpected” is what Kyrgios likes to say about his roller-coaster career. Behaving maturely at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., he defeated rising stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Medvedev to capture his second ATP 500 event, his biggest titles to date. Kyrgios thought he turned over a new leaf, saying, “This has been one of the best weeks of my life from a tennis perspective — I feel like I’ve grown as a person, and I’m getting better every day. I’ve made massive strides.”
Not so fast! Just two weeks later, Mr. Hyde arrived in Cincinnati. During a second-round match against Karen Khachanov, he committed a record nine ATP code of conduct violations resulting in $113,000 in total fines. This mental meltdown started when Kyrgios received a time violation for taking too long between points. “Absolute rubbish... disgrace,” Kyrgios ranted at umpire Fergus Murphy. “Get me some footage of Rafa playing that quick, that game.” It escalated when he took an illegal bathroom break. And it ended in a blaze of anger when he called Murphy “a f**king tool.”
Former world No. 1 Jim Courier, now a Tennis Channel analyst, provided a leopard-cannot-change-his-spots assessment. “We can’t think Washington was a turning point in Nick’s career,” said Courier. “I didn’t fall into that trap. It doesn’t seem plausible Nick will have a second act, as [Andre] Agassi did, which turned his career around. This is Nick. This is what we have. Losing your mind over a shot clock that went faster than he thought is unfathomable. But many things about Kyrgios are unfathomable.”
So what makes Nick tick?
“He’s got an incredible — this is my opinion — fear of failure,” John McEnroe, the enfant terrible of tennis in the 1980s, told BBC Radio 5 . “He doesn’t even allow himself to train hard enough to give himself a chance. The guy would be top five in the world for sure if he gave an honest effort.”
The highly regarded psychologist Allen Fox, a former U.S. top-10 player, said, “At Cincinnati Kyrgios acted like a fugitive from a mental institution. It was a sad display of a person who had completely lost touch with rationality. Tennis is an inherently emotional game, and plenty of players have blown matches by becoming irrational and behaving counterproductively. But Kyrgios is at another level.
“Tennis competition can be stressful, and at the pro level, it can be very stressful,” continued Fox, who has written several authoritative books, including Tennis: Winning the Mental Match . “High stress is hard to handle for a stable individual, but with an unstable individual, it’s quite enough to make him or her excessively emotional and totally irrational.”
After Cincinnati, the sports media in Australia, a nation that reveres sportsmanship as much as championships, blasted their anti-hero. The Australian newspaper called Kyrgios’ misbehaviour “the most vile outburst yet” and “akin to a child having a tantrum”; the tabloid Sydney Daily Telegraph wrote: “The Nick Kyrgios show has sunk to a new low.” Channel Nine television sports presenter Tony Jones said, “Yet again Nick Kyrgios has proved himself to be an embarrassment to Australian sport. Quite possibly world sport... It’s time the ATP adopted a heavy-handed approach and ban Kyrgios from the US Open.”
Even Andy Murray, a friend of Kyrgios and one of his staunchest supporters, condemned his misconduct, saying, “It wasn’t good, and I felt for Fergus as he shouldn’t have to put up with that.”
Umpires aren’t the only victims. Kyrgios’ match-delaying histrionics can break the winning momentum of opponents and overshadow the outstanding play of his victorious foes. A little controversy appeals to some fans, but delays turn them off and defaults cheat them. Kyrgios also sets a bad example for young players. Recently, Alexander Bublik, a promising 22-year-old from Kazakhstan, foolishly and futilely served and volleyed — with an underhanded serve — on match point.
Tennis has a long history of colourful characters, rebels and miscreants ever since imperious Bill Tilden battled the U.S. tennis establishment in the 1920s. Champions of yesteryear Pancho Gonzalez, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and McEnroe, and 21st century superstar Serena Williams garnered almost as many headlines for their tempests on the court as for their conquests. But, all except the unstable Nastase, were relentless fighters and consistent winners.
“A big difference between John McEnroe and today’s bad boys is that his notorious fury fuelled him in a way that turned him into a winner,” Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother, told The New York Post last year. “The idea of John giving up a point or a match [out of anger], that just didn’t happen.”
Sports fans would likely overlook many of the mercurial Kyrgios’ sins, if, like the other bad boys of tennis, he competed hard all the time. But 18-time major singles titlist Chris Evert, renowned for her true grit and sangfroid, isn’t optimistic. “I don’t know how much you can teach hunger and focus and commitment,” said Evert. “I mean, you can encourage it, but until it gets into his persona, until it gets into his conscience and his heart, we’re not going to see the best of Nick Kyrgios. It’s just the way he is.” Perhaps the showman Kyrgios should learn more about talent-wasting Kovacs and Agassi’s revival and then decide whom he would like to emulate.