Around the time in Sunday’s Wimbledon final when Nick Kyrgios began profanely berating his family for not cheering him the right way, you had the sense that it wasn’t going to be his day.
Kyrgios famously needs to have a target to pick on during matches – officials, opponents, himself. He’s not picky.
It’s also been noted that he requires a lot of praise. The support humans he flies with – father, sister, manager, girlfriend – throw themselves out of their seats after every single point he’s won. These people are the only spectators who put in a full aerobic workout over the course of every sporting match they attend.
But when things started going wrong for Kyrgios – most notably, in the ninth game of Sunday’s third set – they were apparently too into it for his liking.
The match against Novak Djokovic went into its fourth hour, but it was those five minutes where Kyrgios lost it. Figuratively, literally and a lot of other adverbs.
There had been other outbursts beforehand. The most amusing was a freakout because a woman sitting courtside was “making noise” between Kyrgios’s first and second serves. Not during his serve. During the interregnum. When nothing’s happening.
“She’s drunk out of her mind in the first row,” Kyrgios shrieked at the chair umpire. When the umpire noted that he couldn’t throw anyone out because he didn’t know exactly who Kyrgios was talking about, Kyrgios yelled back, “The one who looks like she’s had about 700 drinks, bro.”
Oh dear. If you came to the Wimbledon final for The Kyrgios Show, you were not disappointed.
If you came for tennis, you might have been.
Now that our fortnight of revels has ended, you can begin to put what Kyrgios did here in perspective. Yes, he was better over a longer period than he has ever been. By the end, the crowd was securely in his favour.
But mostly he and the reaction to him put you in a mind of a screed Martin Amis once wrote about tennis “personalities” (Amis’s emphasis).
Sample line: “[Ilie Nastase] was well known as a ‘clown’ and a ‘showman’; i.e., as an embarrassing narcissist.”
In that piece, Amis elaborated the difference between great players and famous buffoons. Great players don’t need personality because they have character instead. Having wished Roger Federer into existence, Amis then got him.
But that point of view is the luxury of an aesthete. It doesn’t take into account the demands of a global TV audience. If a critical mass of people wanted entertainment with the dignity of a Shakespeare tragedy, they wouldn’t have to perform those in parks. What they want is a bear pit, without any danger of the bears getting into the crowd.
Knowing what was expected of him, Kyrgios provided it. But only after the match had begun to slip away. In the first set, he was the better player and silent as a monk.
As it started going wrong in the second, Kyrgios’s chatter began. It was self-focused to begin with, but eventually migrated up to his friends in the stands.
In the third, when he fully realized he did not have the goods, he slid into a nearly unbroken hour-long tantrum. Having got a really good look at him here, you’re beginning to understand who Kyrgios is. He’s one of those talented people who’s never really failed because they’ve never really tried.
Back to that ninth game of the third set. Tied at 4-4, Kyrgios serving, with a 40-0 lead. The game should have been over. But Djokovic did what Djokovic does and reeled him in. That game flipped the set and, inevitably, the match.
Kyrgios’s hype crew did their usual jack-in-the-box act, but with too much honest emotion. Kyrgios seemed to believe he’d heard an audible flicker of doubt from them. Back in his chair, he began screaming at full volume. Imagine the following paragraph in all-caps.
“Just wait until he gets back to deuce and ‘Aaaaah’ [mimicking a sound of dismay]. That’s all of you. ‘Aaaah’. Why do you do that? Why do you …” at which point a lot of it became unprintable.
Kyrgios’s nearest and dearest sat there glumly staring at their meal ticket and Kyrgios stood there acting as though it were their fault he screwed up. He went back onto the court and continued his rant under the Royal Box, while 8-year-old Prince George leaned over the side trying to get a look at him. My liege, may I introduce you to your subjects?
Kyrgios was still at it as he was full-on tanking the tiebreak in the fourth and deciding set: “Say something! I don’t get it!”
I do. You didn’t lose Wimbledon. They did. All those people who are always letting you down. Poor you.
These displays are gripping, sordid and make you feel bad for watching, in the same way you can’t take your eyes off a stranger crying in a coffee shop. And that’s just on TV. Can you imagine living with this guy? At best, it must be exhausting.
The forgotten man in all of this was Djokovic, who won his 21st Grand Slam 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3).
The champion didn’t really come into focus until the post-match speeches. He spent a lot of time lavishly praising Kyrgios (“Okay, it’s officially a bromance.”) You could see the calculation here. Whatever Kyrgios’s faults, he seems genuine. Whatever Djokovic’s attributes, he does not. One guy wanting to glom onto the other makes branding sense.
Djokovic thanked a bunch of people, but didn’t remember to say something nice to his wife on their wedding anniversary until the on-court host prompted him. Let’s just say his tennis is markedly superior to his wooing abilities.
Once it ended, Kyrgios’s rage was done as well. He was sweet verging on saccharine, even to the umpires (all of whom must hate him with a white-hot passion). The crowd ate it up, which ensures this will happen again, meaning Kyrgios will feel no need to change and therefore never win that major he claims not to care all that much about. So everyone gets what they want.
The fans and media get their personality. Kyrgios gets his attention. Djokovic gets his title. And tennis gets a little stupider, a little more coarse.
But we probably shouldn’t make any final judgment until we see those TV numbers. Those will tell us if this was a good thing after all.