The Australian is criticized for his conduct, but could he be an effective anti-hero?
The French Open, for many, was supposed to symbolize the new era of star power, and of none more prominent than the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios. The prospect of a breakout performance was perpetuated by a strong clay court season, prompting many to believe that the 21-year-old Australian could be at long last a legitimate threat to compete for a Grand Slam. Kyrgios, however, failed to overcome a difficult draw against crowd favorite and world No. 9 Richard Gasquet. Questions then surfaced, like they have so many times after a Kyrgios defeat, about discipline and work ethic. Does he want it bad enough? Will he ever mature? This has been his wrap for most of his career, and justifiably so.
Kyrgios has made rude, inappropriate remarks about Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend, berated umpires, and recently incurred a $6,200 fine for screaming an obscenity in his loss against Gasquet. A few days ago fellow countryman and former Wimbledon Champion Pat Cash voiced his opinion of Kyrgios’ off-the-court activities. He advised him to delete his twitter account, insinuating that if he doesn’t he will be unable to reach his full potential. Kyrgios laughed it off. Many are withdrawing their support for the world No. 19, considering him to be a disgrace to the integrity of this elegant sport. The fact is, however, Kyrgios will thrive by being his obnoxious, self-assured self, and so too will the sport. Everyone loves a good villain.
It may seem wrong to embrace the misconduct of a player, but Kyrgios is who he is. He may one day tone down his behavior, but even at the young age of 21, it appears that he is just an indifferent and petulant individual. We need to look past his embarrassing displays, and instead use them as fuel to invest in his matches.
Star power is quickly diminishing, with Rafael Nadal consistently plagued by injury and Roger Federer starting to show signs of old age. Kyrgios has the right stuff. It is just a matter of time before he puts it all together, and when he does expect the tennis world to be set ablaze.
The game of tennis has changed rapidly, and has been infused with new life and a more grueling physical style of play. It still needs, however, something to elevate it past just a sport. Kyrgios, whether you like him or hate him, is the answer. It might be better to label him as a polarizing figure, rather than sensationalize him as a villain. This is, after all, not the WWE. These are real offenses with real consequences. It is simply wrong to belittle an official or phone it in when a match does not go your way. But it is hard to deny that Kyrgios has a charm about him. He is honest and expressive, which are qualities that many fans can appreciate.
Great polarizing figures like LeBron James, Bryce Harper, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe need two traits: elite talent and a personality that is bigger than the game. Since there is little doubt about his ability to captivate and disgust audiences, let us begin by analyzing Kyrgios’ trajectory as a potential star.
Kyrgios is having his best season, which is why spectators, including myself, are anxious to see when he will play up to his capabilities in a major tournament. He won his first ATP title in Marseille, defeating Gasquet, Tomas Berdych, and Marin Cilic, without ever having his serve broken. The Aussie was also playing well leading up to the French Open, but much like his previous Grand Slam appearances, he was unable to mount a formidable attack against a top-10 player. He will receive more favorable draws as he improves his ranking, but eventually Kyrgios will be forced to rise to the occasion on a big stage. He has the skills to do it.
Kyrgios is winning 76 percent of his service points, which is even higher than Djokovic. He capitalizes on the break points he gets, but does not earn as many as he should. His return game, as a whole, needs honing. Breaking an opponent’s serve, especially that of a top talent, requires composure. Many believe his inconsistencies lie primarily in a lack of discipline, but given his track record of upending notable talents before, it is more likely that he is still figuring out how to play an elite brand of tennis for the duration of a best-of-five match.
Kyrgios is on course with the other greats before him. He just turned 21, and has already displayed remarkable growth as a player. Murray cracked the top-15 when he was 20, and Djokovic had already ascended to the top-10 and was eyeing his first major title. Kyrgios is a bit behind, but there is still some time for him to blossom into a multi-slam winner. Yet Murray, a player himself who had been deemed to be underachieving, challenged Kyrgios to set reaching the top 15 as an objective. Kyrgios is in the hot seat, while other players fly under the radar. I am not defending him, but he could benefit by displaying the personality of the hungry challenger desperate to prove himself. He is already almost there. There is certainly an air of desire behind each of his tirades.
We have established that Kyrgios has the ability. Anybody who watches him can back up that claim. The thing that differentiates him is what many believe to be his greatest hindrance to success, but is in fact the thing that may put him over the top — his attitude — which as stated before can be inexcusable at times. I, however, as a tennis fan who wishes to see the popularity of the sport grow and expand, like to see things in terms of narrative, not just competition.
No one can deny, even Cash and other displeased former greats, that Kyrgios makes the game more interesting. Should the sport be above using scandal as a means of appeal? Yes, no one should aspire to be like TMZ. It is a sport in which two gladiators exhaust all of their physical strength to outlast and overcome their opponent. It is truly a sight to witness a Djokovic-Nadal marathon seven-hour match. Remember when they needed chairs at the trophy presentation of the 2012 Australian Open.
The problem, though, is that American sports fans crave conflict. They need something to root for and something to root against, and Kyrgios satisfies the latter. This is especially important in an individual sport, where people invest in the person as much as the game. They gravitate toward a certain style of play, sure, but it was Connors’ oozing charisma and boisterous antics that kept eyes glued on the television. The fact that he was American was not as relevant as his persona.
Kyrgios’s appearance at the French Open, however short lived, proved his popularity. He is still making headlines after being eliminated several days ago. He can be just as interesting off the court as he is on it, sometimes even more. Very few professional athletes have the power to captivate with their words, and when someone in tennis possesses that trait, it should be recognized as a gold mine.
It is the jarring phrases that turn off fellow players and coaches that makes him so alluring and refreshing. Hearing him admit his disinterest of playing tennis and ambition to have a professional basketball career leaves one befuddled. Is he being disrespectful. Is he joking? And there is the enigma of Kyrgios. He is more complex than just a spoiled brat. He is an anomaly.
Competition is at its height with arguably three players jostling for the position of best of all time. This era will end in the near future and as a new one is ushered in, I cannot think of a better person to lead it than Kyrgios. He possess the bad boy gene of Connors to go along with the sheer power present in the modern game. He could be the best of both worlds.
This assertion of Kyrgios being a great villain or controversial character could seem absurd. He has not yet shown himself to be a star, and it may also seem difficult to see how his actions would be considered good for a sport. They should not be encouraged, but like I said before, he is in my opinion unlikely to change. Kyrgios will eventually be a perennial fixture on center court, and with his personality he could once again raise the sport to theater, like it was in the golden age of the 70s and 80s. Competition was fierce, and rivalries were intense as a result of the larger-than-life personalities. Kyrgios is that amalgam of sport and theater, and that is a recipe for success. Wimbledon could see him plant the seeds of a what could be the start of a great run as a ratings magnet.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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