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We Should Thank Nick Kyrgios
Thursday, 08/08/2019
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Centre Court at Wimbledon; Photo by Spiralz

Just as every Hollywood action flick needs a formidable villain—a figure who we love to hate and love to watch, one who refuses to abide by society’s rules—so, too, does the world of tennis. While tennis may not seem to be a sport filled with “bad boys,” it’s had a history of divisive rebels who’ve raised eyebrows, challenged both tennis and cultural norms, and grated the nerves of many viewers (and players). Add to this the prestige and ethos that is Wimbledon 2019. The (required) crisp, white apparel. The air of royalty, celebrity, and tradition. The epitome of “politeness” and “class.” This is where they shine, our “villains” under a microscope, every word and gesture to be analyzed by millions.
It used to be Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi making headlines at the All-England Club. Now, it’s Nick Kyrgios. He’s young, talented, and confident. He screams and berates chair umpires (during and after matches). He tries to attack his opponent with the ball. He’s confrontational with the media. It’s as if everyone is out to get him, to slight him out of deserved success, and he will stop at nothing to ensure that the world knows of his misfortune. And some fans love the drama, watching with bated breath to see the next firework go off.
Even if some are offended by Kyrgios—or simply think he’s a jerk—there’s still a can-you-believe-he-just-did-that factor that commands attention, especially at Wimbledon. He doesn’t seem to be affected by the majesty and regimen at the All-England Club, and there’s something about his attitude that garners intrigue—and that grinds the gears of his opponents. That’s why every tennis fan—and non-fans who simply stumble upon a Kyrgios explosion while channel surfing—watches anytime Kyrgios is featured. Like him or not, tennis needs characters like Kyrgios as much as Batman needs The Joker, regardless of Kyrgios’ authenticity. This is true both for the sport itself and for the media presence of the sport. Sure, you won’t find USTA leagues teaching kids to model his behavior, but it draws viewers, nonetheless.
In terms of how he gets under another player’s skin, it’s not too difficult to discern. When he’s set off, his antics are a distraction from the flow of the game. Whether he’s challenging a line call, bemoaning unfair treatment from the chair umpire, or hammering his racket into the court, Kyrgios shifts the focus sharply and swiftly away from the game and toward the spectacle. For every minute Kyrgios is on stage, his opponents’ muscles are cooling, their heart rate slowing, and their adrenaline dropping—they are pulled out of the game. It’s difficult to game plan or strategize when you don’t really know what Kyrgios will do nor when. On top of the antics, Kyrgios has the talent to perform on an elite level, often playing his best tennis against top players (particularly against the Big Three), despite the fact that he’s not a top pick to win at the U.S. Open this fall.
Of course, this can be very annoying for Kyrgios’ opponents. While some shrug it off, many opponents grow tired of his shenanigans on-court, and it shows in their expressions and their play. Because Kyrgios’ skill on the court leaves his opponents’ little room for error, the psychological impact of his distractions can tip the scales. This couldn’t be more evident than it was when Kyrgios faced Rafael Nadal in the 2nd Round at Wimbledon. There, we saw Nadal clearly annoyed, shaken, and tested by the man who has essentially become his rival. In the back-and-forth, four-set battle, Kyrgios gave him all he could handle. It was a phenomenal match with both playing superb tennis in the figurative battle of Good vs. Evil. Not everyone can be Nadal, though, and few players have the poise to play at an elite level through such distraction the way that he did. Furthermore, Kyrgios’ emotional peaks and valleys didn’t seem to tank his play, either.
An interesting psychological factor in this, though, is the expectation of “professionalism” (from viewers, media, and other players alike). There are expected norms in the tennis world, and—as in society at large—those who venture outside the boundaries are subject to be scorned. Of course, at the root of this is the way one defines “professionalism” and what one considers “entertainment value.”
On the surface, Kyrgios is rebellious, appealing to those who can identify with his do-it-my-way persona and who admire his refusal to conform.  Beyond that, though, there are deeper implications. In the same way that great villains and antiheroes make us question the ethical and moral fabric of our world, Kyrgios challenges us to question what is acceptable, “good,” and worthy of public reward when it comes to being a sports entertainer. He holds up a mirror to the sport, to the media, and to viewers—and then dares them cast judgment.