It’s hard to say exactly when Nick Kyrgios went over the line this week. There were a lot of lines.
Was it spiking his racquet in the face of a line judge? Or kicking the water bottle? Flinging a chair onto the court was definitely too much. And it was probably a terrible idea to pack his bag mid-match and make a great show of leaving while the crowd threatened to surge onto the playing surface.
Kyrgios – who is poor impulse control made incarnate – was thrown out of the Italian Open for this second-round tantrum. That didn’t make much sense since he’d already tossed himself.
Organizers are so cross they’re going to charge him for the “hospitality” he received at the tournament. And you will be shocked by what a cab ride costs in Rome.
Now they’re talking about suspending him. Again.
You don’t need CSI:ATP to figure out that Kyrgios’s meltdown connected back to a podcast he’d done a couple of days earlier. On it, he ripped several of his highest-profile colleagues.
On Novak Djokovic: “I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked.”
On Rafael Nadal: “He’s super salty … Rafa gets me vexed as well.”
On Fernando Verdasco: “That guy drives me nuts. I don’t even want to talk about it” – then talked about it. A bunch.
He also offered up thoughts and prayers to his employers:– “I don’t care if you paid for tickets.”
This isn’t bold truth telling. It’s stacking cordwood under your chair and waving a barbecue lighter around.
Many years ago, I made a similar error of judgment at a job. It involved leaving a letter on the printer that contained some unfiltered thoughts about management. These thoughts should not have been said aloud in the workplace, never mind printed. And I really shouldn’t have forgotten to collect my manifesto before going home for the evening.
When I got to work the next morning, the printout was taped to my computer monitor. The jig was up.
It was a small office. I sat there while everyone else filtered into their cubicles, trying to avoid looking at me. The boss came in and closed her office door. Everybody knew.
Morning passed. Lunch hour came and went. The afternoon stretched on. About 4 o’clock, I stood up and announced to the room, “Is someone going to fire me or what?”
So they fired me.
That’s what Nick Kyrgios is doing. He’s trying to get fired from tennis. Won’t someone do him a solid?
Kyrgios loves repeating that he doesn’t enjoy playing the sport that has made him famous. He did it again on the podcast. All he wants to do, he says, is play pickup basketball and videogames with his buddies. He’s 24 and wants to live like a 14-year-old, Bat-bro version of Bruce Wayne.
Everybody else wants to rescue Kyrgios from himself. They want him to discover the redemptive value of competition and hard work. Many of the same pros he routinely torches have tried to help. They’re just looking for the right inspirational speech.
This impulse isn’t altruistic. This is the herd protecting itself. It instinctively understands Kyrgios is a threat because he is a human rebuke to our culture of conformity and absolute equality.
Sports in general flies in the face of it. If each of us is special in our own special way, how do you rationalize people who are obviously better than the rest of us; or justify the unseemliness of worshipping some of them like gods?
The gods have figured that out. They are only better because they work so hard. So, not really better, as such, just more driven.
This is why athletes are constantly banging on about how difficult this is and how compulsively they go at it. How they’ve been doing that since they were six months old and how their parents are all lunatics.
Yeah, sure, being a multimillionaire rock star is fine, but it’s not all fun. There’s the 1,000 daily chin-ups between facials and Ferrari deliveries.
That reassures the rest of us. Why am I not a top-100 player at anything? Because I chose another path. I found my bliss elsewhere, or didn’t. But tennis, sure, I could’ve done that. Maybe. Who’s to say? It’s too late to find out now.
Kyrgios doesn’t work hard at it. That’s another thing he keeps saying. He doesn’t work at it at all. He just shows up every once in a while and plays. He is, by his own lights, “uncoachable.” There’s no one pushing him to go for a morning run.
Instead, he is a savant. Fact is, they all are. Nobody got there through hard work alone. Lots of people work hard. They aren’t all wearing pyjamas on the job and getting novelty cheques.
The ones who got to the very top did so largely through genetics – so, blind luck. And this is a delicate time for that sort of person.
No one wants to hear that someone else is intrinsically more, which necessarily means they are irrevocably less. Though provably true, it is just at this moment a politically unpopular take on human evolution.
Kyrgios isn’t a behavioural problem for tennis (at least, not just that). He’s a philosophical one. The more he says these things out loud, the more uncomfortable it gets for his colleagues. The personal attacks get the headlines, but it’s the structural stuff that lands hardest.
Other top players would like him to “learn” (i.e. shut up). He would like them to force him to go away. Which is why he keeps saying it. The connection is obvious.
But despite himself, Kyrgios is still a draw. People enjoy the idea that he may provide a viral moment IRL. He still wins enough to be invited to future tournaments. This could go on for years.
If Kyrgios wants to leave, he’s going to have to fire himself. And though he’s trying his very best – this is the only thing he puts real effort into now – he can’t figure out which line he has to cross in order to do that.