When I was a kid, all my sporting heroes were volcanic individuals. I’d get up in the middle of the night and Greg Norman would be storming down the fairway like he was liberating Kuwait. He’d hit 11 birdies in a row, and then whack a regulation 7 iron into a carpark. A blank-eyed Gary Ablett Snr would run out, and you were never quite sure whether he was about to break records, inflict grievous bodily harm, or sulk in a forward pocket. Dermott Brereton would stand for the national anthem like he was posing for his own statue, and then run around as crazy as a crusader. Pat Cash was one of the most naturally gifted athletes I’ve seen, and also one of the most puerile and self-sabotaging. I loved all of them, forgave them a lot, and grew out of them later than I should have.
Our champions are far more stable, sober, polished figures these days. In team sports in particular, there’s little room for loose cannons. Most are process driven. They say the right things. They play in the right spirit. Most of Australia’s best sportspeople are women who, for many reasons, behave more sensibly than their male counterparts.
There’s nothing sensible about Nick Kyrgios. There’s nothing sensible about his game. There’s nothing sensible about the narrative around him. Whenever he’s making a run at a grand slam, it can feel as though he’s an affront to a nation, and to a sport. For a few weeks a year, he singlehandedly keeps the Australian think-piece industry afloat. For a few weeks a year, he’s scowling, shambling and slouching about, prowling baselines, picking fights and pushing his luck.
He really excels at winding us up. Journalists who profess to find him boring and tedious spend a hell of a lot of time, energy and ink on him. There are all sorts of prejudices and biases bubbling about. Kate Halfpenny from the Sydney Morning Herald was at least honest enough to publish what so many have been itching to say. “Asking for a friend: is there a way to revoke Nick Kyrgios’s passport and kick him off the island, so we can stop being linked to this grub?” In other words, know your place boy. Toe the line. Fit in or fuck off. Peter FitzSimons, the head of the Australian Republican Movement, once called him a “toxic tosser” and a “national embarrassment”. “Dear Nick Kyrgios…” began one of his open letters, “…mate, bring it in tight.” Those eight words are heavily freighted – the paternalism, the contempt, the misnomer that Kyrigos is representing his country, the assumption that he’d actually be interested in Peter’s advice.
What’s even harder to take seriously is criticism from former tennis players, particularly Cash and John McEnroe. The latter was once described by the New York Times as “the worst advertisement for our system of values since Al Capone”. Cash himself was hardly an exemplar of good manners and grace. Both of them should recognise a tortured soul when they see one.
But there’s nothing like a game of tennis to draw judgement. At the risk of alienating anyone who’s ever attended a tennis match, centre court tennis crowds can be a bit prissy, corporate and deferential. They’ll laugh at anything. They like cute interviews, signatures on cameras, and safe stars. “Oh, she’s so lovely!” they’ll purr to their partner. “Oh, he seems like a knob!”
When Nick’s fans carried on like yobs in January, there were op-eds peppered with words like “grace” and “charm”. He egged them on all the way, and all the usual knickers were knotted. Most of his fans looked like the sort of kids that used to play up at A-League matches, and had certain members of the press petrified that we had a Galatasaray crowd and civil unrest on our hands.
At times, it has felt his career has been a backlash against all the tut-tutting – a giant troll, an exhibition and, ultimately, a waste. At times, he’s looked like a man who’s playing the wrong sport, like someone who needs the bosom of a team, a reassuring word, a pat on the bum. But something strange has happened this week. Through all the Krakatoa moments, he has made the most convincing of his championship runs. He seems, from this time-zone, to have won over a class of people who normally wouldn’t spit on someone like him.
And so, against my better judgement and at the risk of forfeiting many lifelong friendships, I find myself rooting for him. In all his talent and torture, he evokes memories of those champions of my youth. That’s the difference though. They were champions. He’s a mere curiosity, a wind-up merchant, a flamethrower in a sporting world of straighty 180s. If he wins on Wednesday, and if he knocks over one of the toughest and most feted sportsmen of his generation in the semis, the conversation shifts. I’m not sure this country, and the sport of tennis itself, is quite ready to deal with that.