We Need To Talk About Nick

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‘Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that mate.’ With those ten words, hurled towards Stan Wawrinka during a second round match in Montreal, a young Australian instantly found himself in hot water.

For the best part of 18 months, Nick Kyrgios, with his flecked eyebrows, colourful hair and diamond earrings, has been the most polarising figure in tennis. On the one hand, he’s seen as flashy, talented and refreshing. On the other hand, he’s arrogant, childish and irritating. In truth, he’s all those things. He’s been a breath of fresh air with brattish tendencies and it’s been a pretty compelling combination.

But this past week he crossed the line. Big time. His remark was an unwelcome attack on his opponent – who happened to be one of the nicest, most humble pros on tour. But worse than that, it was trash talk that brought undeserving third and fourth parties into a media storm. The salacious accusation about 19-year-old Donna Vekic was a degrading way to talk about someone and by mentioning Thanasi Kokkinakis, Kyrgios also dragged a supposed friend through the mud.

Kyrgios’ words were picked up by courtside microphones and within seconds, of the incident had spread across social media. Following his previous controversies, whether it be  rants at officials or petulantly giving up on points, Kyrgios has had an army of defenders. In fact, many have celebrated the young Canberra native, claiming he’s a throwback to the golden days of Connors and McEnroe. But this time, even so-called Kyrgios apologists turned on him. The ATP issued Nick with the maximum on-site fine and also served him with a ‘notice of investigation’. In general, there was an outpouring of antipathy from pretty much everyone within the tennis community.

The fallout from his antics will likely rumble on for many months

The following day against John Isner, Kyrgios was roundly and vociferously booed on and off court as he was vanquished in straight sets. With that loss came the end to a nightmare week PR-wise for Kyrgios, but the fallout from his antics will likely rumble on for many months.

So what’s next? This is a pivotal moment in a young man’s life and he appears to be at a three-way crossroads.

He might decide to continue as if nothing has happened, to go on playing the role as the ATP World Tour villain. Such an approach would have some benefits. After all, there is a minority of fans who believe that men’s tennis, with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at the helm, has become overly gentlemanly and somewhat dull. ‘Kyrgios is good for tennis’, they say, longing for the days of McEnroe, Connors and Nastase who embraced controversy. Tennis had an Attitude Era in the 1970s and 80s, long before the phrase became synonymous with the WWF. But times have changed. Tennis no longer needs a bad boy. While soap opera headlines may initially draw more outsiders into the game, they ultimately bring the positive image of the sport into disrepute. That can’t be good for tennis.

Another option for Kyrgios might be for him to go into his shell, to keep his head down and out of the spotlight. There would certainly be some who would welcome such a personality shift.

But as Andy Murray has said, Nick Kyrgios is not all bad. He was the perpetrator on this occasion but he’s been the victim himself in the past. Back in July, for example, Australian swimming icon Dawn Fraser criticised him with racially charged language. What’s more, this is a young man who’s growing up in the spotlight. What he said this week was regrettable, but young people should have room to make mistakes and be given the opportunity to learn from them.

Tennis may not need bad boys but it does need exciting new challengers and Kyrgios, with all his swagger and talent, is the most dangerous, exhilarating and ‘buzzworthy’ player of his generation.

Surely the answer for Kyrgios, as is so often the case, lies in a Middle Way. Most people can live with his exuberance and arrogance. He just needs to surround himself with the right people who can help him to calm down and keep a lid on the nastiness. Tennis may not need bad boys but it does need exciting new challengers and Kyrgios, with all his swagger and talent, is the most dangerous, exhilarating and ‘buzzworthy’ player of his generation. It would be sad if Wednesday’s episode prevented him from being the showman that he undoubtedly is. He’s going to have to put up with some booing for a while but if he can learn some respect for the game and his fellow professionals, then his unique brand of tennis will do the rest and eventually help him win back some fans.

The key for Kyrgios’ development is his focus. If he wants to be reach the pinnacle of the sport, he needs to improve his professionalism and truly begin to dedicate himself to tennis. For the past year, there has always been some unnecessary drama with Kyrgios and it’s led to distraction both on and off court – so much so that it’s been holding him back; he hasn’t really improved his game since he announced himself to the world by beating Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. He could do worse than to copy the example set by the Big Four who are continually making small adjustments to their games in an attempt to gain even the most minute advantages.

This has been an unpleasant week for tennis. But Kyrgios now has the opportunity to make it one of the most significant weeks in the sport’s history. For all the talk in the past few years about the ‘next generation’, the fact remains that nobody has come close to toppling the game’s most established stars. In a week where everyone was talking about Kyrgios for his distasteful antics, on the court in Montreal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray seamlessly made their way through to another high-profile final. If Kyrgios has ambitions of being there himself one day, and he certainly has the ability to do so, he needs to use this week as a turning point. This is his chance to mature. If he doesn’t change now, he never will.

Photograph: Carine06 via Flickr

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