By Owais Majid
Nick Kyrgios produced a masterclass to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in four enthralling sets. To say that was a side note would be an enormous understatement. Tennis matches involving Kyrgios rarely pass without at times giving way to a bit of controversy. On Saturday evening, it felt like controversy sometimes gave way to a bit of a tennis match.
It all started at 5-5 duece in the first set. When the line judge stopped a point that it turned out Kyrgios had won, the 27-year old expressed his frustration to the umpire. His incessant and by now predictable complaining continued for the duration of that first set which he eventually lost in a tiebreak where his level dipped significantly.
At every change of ends in the second set, Kyrgios continued to make his point. At 4-4, 30-40, when Tsitsipas finally had an opening on the Australian’s serve which had been so solid up until that point, Kyrgios came up with a second serve ace before closing the game out with more ruthless serving. He then played a brilliant return game to take the set 6-4. At this point, Tsitsipas swatted the ball away in frustration, apparently hitting a spectator in the process.
This prompted another outburst from Kyrgios, as he demanded that Tsitsipas be defaulted for his actions. Whether or not that should have been the case is a debate in and of itself. With the rules being as vague as they are, it’s difficult to establish what constitutes being defaulted and what doesn’t.
Even at this point, it was all fairly par for the course for a Kyrgios match. It was what followed that was so jarring.
Tsitsipas, clearly rattled by his opponent’s antics, proceeded to try and hit Kyrgios on numerous occasions with the ball. There were moments in that third set where it appeared that things would boil over, with the Greek seemingly on the verge of a Kyrgios-esq implosion.
It continued in a similar fashion. Kyrgios closed out the third set with more excellent serving, at one point sarcastically remarking “nice shot” at a Tsitsipas stroke which landed way long.
Relatively speaking, set four was a more tepid affair with Kyrgios maintaining his near faultless level on serve. He eventually took it 7-6 on a tiebreak to record one of the biggest victories of his career.
The match had a multitude of interesting aspects to it but what struck me the most was the broad range of reaction that this was eliciting. As is probably the case with the majority of you reading this, I often find myself scrolling through Twitter whilst watching a match. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a range of opinions about something as I did about this match.
On the one hand, there was what we’d consider as Tennis Twitter. The vast majority in this fairly small bubble were far from impressed by what they were witnessing. This felt like a completely unnecessary act in what should be a high quality, high stakes tennis match. What started as a bit of an inconvenience quickly became the primary focus of this contest and it’s fair to say that people were pretty vexed at that.
There was a far bigger group however, that were lapping up everything that was going on and positively overjoyed by what they were witnessing. For the casual sports fan, probably only watching Wimbledon because it was on the BBC and there’s no club football on at the moment, this was the epitome of Saturday night entertainment. When you don’t watch tennis on a regular basis, when you’re not as familiar with all of the storylines within storylines, it’s far less likely that a tennis match involving two players ranked 5th and 41st in the world is going to catch your attention the way it would with a seasoned follower of the sport.
Add a considerable amount of needle to said tennis match and it’s a completely different ball game, excuse the pun. Whether we like it or not, pure tennis doesn’t attract your man or woman in the street to anywhere near the extent that a match like this one did.
The avid tennis fan will understandably turn their nose up at them, but the sort of thing Kyrgios does whenever he steps out on to a tennis court sells. He was widely ridiculed when he claimed that he was “one of the most important people for the sport”. Although this was an absurd comment and one that sounded at best ill advised and at worst narcissistic, it’s not entirely untrue. Commentating for BBC 5Live, Kim Clijsters remarked that many of the young children in Belgium consider Kyrgios as one of their favourite players. In fact, plenty of grown adults cheer for Kyrgios more so than they do for other players simply because he brings an element of drama rarely seen in a sport otherwise so polite. WE can debate whether the sport is better off for having such fans and such players, but the fact of the matter is that the growth of the sport is ultimately a positive as far as ticket sails and viewership are concerned. There’s no doubting that Kyrgios enhances that aspect.
Whilst in our bubble, the importance that Kyrgios gives himself seems ludicrous. On the surface of it, here’s a player, ranked in the top 50, who is at a push a part-time tennis player. But the truth is there’s so much more to the Kyrgios experience than that.
On a personal note, I’m not sure on which side of the divide I stand. I was an enormous Kyrgios fan for a number of years. Slowly over time, his continuous harassment of line judges, umpires and just about anyone else has significantly reduced my good will towards him. I’d consider myself a tennis purest, someone who follows the tour on a regular basis, and as such I should have been appalled by his actions. But I think the most accurate way of putting it is that I wanted him to win in spite of what he now is as opposed to because of what he is. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of and I’m pretty tentative to admit it and I also realise how naive that statement probably comes across, not least after Tsitsipas’s claims of Kyrgios being a bully in his post match press conference and Kyrgios’s reaction to that. It’s evident to anyone that he has a big problem when it comes to admitting his own faults, a trait which is hardly endearing, and yet, inexplicably, I find myself rapt by his matches.
Whether or not he is good for the sport will be debated until the cows come home. The point is, that debate will continue, and people will continue talking about him and that, beyond anything else, is why Kyrgios matches are watched by so many.