*This article does contain mention of domestic abuse charges*
I first heard of Nick Kyrgios back when he beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2014 with a performance that screamed potential superstar. He was young, just a teenager, thrust under a microscope to be examined as the world number 144, but while many before him had wilted under the gaze of a giant opponent, he adapted so quickly that it was easy to get taken in by him.
His lack of experience seemed to work in his favour. He hadn’t yet fallen to confidence crushing losses in front of the world and so there was no residue there, no ingrained sense of insecurity that could negatively impact his game when it came to crunch time. Instead, he was free and so solid, cemented by pressure-less authority time and time again in rallies. It was as though he’d come wandering on court out of nowhere and decided to win a tennis match regardless of who he was facing. The stage was his and he performed on it, a glint in his eye, an awareness in his smile, the stop-and-stare impact he was having on those watching only driving him further and forward. He revelled in the spotlight that Wimbledon and Nadal offered him, stretching his arms out and taking the applause with an attitude that bordered on a youthful cockiness that made him all the more magnetic.
From there, I was more-or-less sold on him anyway, taken by his demeanour and attitude that relentlessly kept us guessing exactly what would be coming next. But it wasn’t until he gave an interview the following year in 2015 that I think I labelled myself a fan.
“I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much. I don’t love it,” he said. “It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport. It is just crazy how things go.”
By saying this, Kyrgios immediately drew criticism. “Travelling the world, making millions, cry me a river!” so many would say and I just thought that was so immensely unfair. If you strip away all the fancy shiny things, this was a teenager admitting that he didn’t love the job he did and what was so unreasonable about that? Perhaps people felt that he should be more grateful for what he had, for his talent and skill that he performed with on court, for the money that he was banking. But I felt this set a dangerous precedent for the sort of authority that fans felt comfortable having over the athletes of their favourite sport. They go out there every day to entertain but they should be under no obligation to feel happy while doing so.
And so the first few years of the Kyrgios career bypassed and when instances of controversy played out with him in the leading role, I thought I got it. I thought I understood and knew what it meant and maybe I did a bit, I’m not sure, but what I thought I was seeing was a young adult going through the stages of frustration at his own career situation because he felt locked in and unable to do anything else. He’d found himself good at something at this young young age and as a result, felt trapped by it, felt the immense weight of being potentially stratospherically good, that all hope of being able to possibly be something else felt lost.
Looking back, perhaps I was just making up reasons in my head for his over-the-top behaviour because I liked how different he was to all the other juniors coming up the rankings. I liked that he repeatedly maintained that he barely practiced all that much and was unmotivated. I liked that he went to pubs before big matches and struggled to hold focus when things slid away from him. I liked him because I think in a way I saw myself in what he was trying to deal with, admittedly on a much less magnified scale. When Kyrgios was making those early waves with both his play and his antics, I was an undergraduate at university and more than a little frightened of where I was going, of what direction I was heading in, uncertain if I’d made a mistake in my choices, but knowing that I’d committed and that I probably had to follow it through. I was scared of trying too hard at something, of putting so much work into something I thought I wanted to do, only to falter and fail somewhere down the line when it was all too late and realise that my best effort was never really good enough anyway. It felt easier to coast and accept mediocrity rather than try for anything bigger and be told it was never meant for me. And so to see a player of my favourite sport struggle to rationalise his own journey provided me with a genuine sense of comfort while watching him.
By winning early big matches against Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Kyrgios was transformed instantly from potential-one-to-watch into 100%-one-to-watch-and-watch-very-fucking-closely-indeed. It was from here that Kyrgios began leveraging a level of consistency out of himself that was enough to break into the top 30 in the world in a sport he could not hope to find peace with. As he rose in ranking, he rose in notoriety. There are lists and lists online noting his bubbled-over headline-grabbing outbursts, so-many-so that I’ll spare you a breakdown of them here but soon, there existed enough for editors to feel justified in calling him a “badboy”. This of course was made easier by the fact that tennis as a sport has historically held itself to some stupidly out-dated standard erected by the upper-class, the privileged and the white. Kyrgios – with his angst and his anger – was an outsider to be watched and entertained by from afar but kept at arms length.
And people were entertained by him, very much so in fact, with many sharing and conversing with their opinions on him with every match he played. But rather than settle in, focus up and start taking himself a little more seriously like I thought he might be able to manage in time, it looked to me as though Kyrgios instead felt the need to continually provide the shouting, the swearing, the tanking of matches that had helped make him a headline favourite. Those that loved his behaviour, loved how un-PC he was, came to watch him for that. Yes, they wanted his trick shots and explosive court-craft as well but they expected more, expected the spiciness. They wanted the clowns and the acrobats and the big top red-and-white tent that came with the Kyrgios brand and left somewhat dejected on the occasions that they didn’t get that. And so with a lack of love for the game but a surefire ability to conduct and control the theatrics that surrounded it, Kyrgios fell into his niche and made himself far too comfortable to ever really bother trying to move on from it.
From there, Kyrgios went about constructing a fanbase larger than many of his colleagues that had achieved far more than him on the court at that point and I was among his followers, still keenly watching and waiting for the penny to drop for him, for everything to make sense for him, for him to finally accept what needed to be done to take that final step that his talent was crying out for him to take. And I knew he wasn’t perfect, I knew he was immature and made comments that grated and clanged as they landed badly and I knew all of that and still I was a fan because at the heart of it, I felt like he was worth it. He sold tickets with an addicting mix of tennis and “ooo-what’s-gonna’-happen-next?!” and I lapped it up. I was taken by him and the way the cameras loved him and how tournaments sold him and how he sold himself as well. I liked the swagger and the overconfidence, the racket smashing and the tears that came at surprising moments for someone who still persisted that he didn’t much care. I dunno’, I guess I thought I got it, this game he was playing, the charade he was acting out longterm and building his career around. I thought I got it and I think I liked that I thought I got it.
I can’t pinpoint the moment that the fan of Nick Kyrgios in me started to deteriorate but it’s been a steady process over the past couple of years, highlighted by his extended tour absences and his volatile reactions to random comments from his fellow players that seemed entertaining when he was a youngster struggling to find his way but now seemed dulled with repetitive desperation to remain relevant. I was looking for something new and kept hoping for a turn that never seemed to come and so while I was still interested in Kyrgios’s career on the odd occasions he did make it back to the court, I didn’t find myself quite so enamoured by him.
Others certainly still were though, my god, others certainly still were, and I could understand why because he still gave them a reason to care with a brand of tennis that didn’t take itself seriously. He’d win a few matches in a row with nonchalance and by doing so, kept reeling in the casual tennis fan which is a HUGE target demographic and makes up the majority of audience numbers for bigger matches. And so while many more hardened tennis fans had grown tired of him, Kyrgios became an everyman highlight reel, easily marketable and dependable when it came to providing numbers of views on video compilations through trick-shots, temper fuelled outbursts and direct crowd interaction.
I had come to terms with being a not-a-fan-but-a-casual-acknowledger of his matches because I couldn’t bring myself to not enjoy them, he was – for want of a phrase that hasn’t been rammed down our throats repeatedly by pundits over the years! – box-office. But then his ex-girlfriend Chiara Passari accused him of emotional and physical abuse via a number of sporadic Instagram uploads. This was over a year ago now and was so spread out and random that it was difficult to piece together exactly what was happening. It didn’t particularly help the situation that many of his detractors immediately sprung up with variations of “oh, I always suspected, just look at how he behaves on the court!” because the correlation between on-court behaviour and off-court behaviour is so damn difficult to define and almost impossible to take at face-value. In any case, there was obviously something up and it was unsettling to then see him active on the the tour and for there to be no update on what exactly had transpired. He had a new girlfriend as well. Things seemed to be going OK for him.
That was until Wimbledon of this year when, while on the run of his career, it was revealed that Passari was officially taking him to court, accusing him of grabbing her and it was here that the final vestiges of fondness I had for him bled very quickly away through the cracks. Of course, I’m literally a nobody, and the thousands of new fans that found him as a result of his run to the Wimbledon final were either quick to overlook or did not hear about the accusations levelled at him, buried as they were in positive media spin that painted big sparkly golden hearts around him as he fell at the final hurdle of the Wimbledon fortnight. This was his big career moment that he’d been waiting for and nothing – not idle chitchat about domestic abuse, not nothing – would overshadow this for him.
And it’s worked for him! Following that Wimbledon run, he went on to make the US Open quarterfinals last week, beating the now-former world number 1 on the way with a soundtrack of support that threatened to lift the sun from its bed on the horizon through its sheer strength of volume alone. The Kyrgios faithful. The Kyrgios many. The Kyrgios lot, undamaged in number. This is, after-all, men’s professional tennis, where brushing bruises under rugs comes easy for its stars and their fans.
This piece is not a call for Kyrgios fans to stop following him. Nor is this me telling them that I’m judging them for continuing to do so. This is just a piece for me to say that there’s a time when I’d have been on top of the world to see Nick Kyrgios in a Wimbledon final. I’d have been telling all of my friends who told me he’d never amount to much that “I fucking told ya so, didn’t I?!” I wasted a great many hours writing articles detailing why I thought he was just a stupid misunderstood kid who didn’t know what he wanted in life. And perhaps he was a few years ago. Perhaps he was. Or perhaps he wasn’t. I don’t know him now and I didn’t know him then despite projecting a huge amount of stuff onto what I thought I did know about him. Regardless, whatever issues he has now cannot be excused away as merely a side-effect of age.
I set out to write this specific piece about him because I see a lot of people wondering how anybody could have ever really been a fan of his attitude and I’m not sure if I made it clear but if I do need to clarify a bit, I think a big part of it is because he stood out to a certain demographic as someone that wasn’t trying to make tennis his everything and that in turn made him different. It made him edgy. It made him cool, I guess. I think it almost made him a tragic hero for the media. People will likely read this and come to the conclusion that I let him off with a great deal of stuff so that I could continue being a fan of him and that would be the correct takeaway, I think. It was easy to do because I liked him and I think I just wanted to pretend in some small way that the feeling that most young people have of just doing something to get by was being represented on a worldwide professional tennis stage.
In all of this madness, I find myself reflecting back on a time where I thought that Kyrgios couldn’t not one day go on to win a major tennis title. Despite his lack of commitment, his ability would be enough to climb over his wayward attitude and drag him into the history books of tennis whether he really wanted to be there or not. This year, at the age of 27, he came within one match and two sets of finally proving me right and all that I’m left wondering now is exactly what it might mean for men’s tennis if he finally does get over the line.Embed from Getty Images