OPINION

Why Nick Kyrgios gets under our skin

What is it about Nick Kyrgios?

For many he is the latest in a long line of tennis brats.

Even so, his misbehaviour is "next level". Last month Kyrgios was fined a record $166,000 for an on-court combustion that led many - including Pat Rafter - to call for his suspension.

More sympathetic observers raised concerns about Kyrgios' mental health and again wondered, "If only he could get his act together."

Nick Kyrgios plays tennis with young fans in Canberra. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Nick Kyrgios plays tennis with young fans in Canberra. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

What is clear is that people want to watch him. Indeed, at the US Open both his singles and doubles matches were on prime time and centre court.

However, now that the grand slams are over, it is worth calmly considering why exactly he riles, befuddles, excites, confronts and allures us?

The answer is that he tells the truth. Moreover, he's authentic. He's true to himself and to his values.

Kyrgios reveals brutal truths about a brutal sport. Singles tennis is driven by a ruthless desire to outwit, exhaust and dominate your opponent.

The same can be said of other sports, but in tennis there are no teammates to hide behind or blame, each point brings a cascade of often intense emotions, and matches never end in a draw.

Were it not for the net and absence of physical contact, it would be a cage fight.

Customs also serve to civilise the sport such as the "good game" well wishes before the first point, the demand for crowd silence during play, substituting a demoralising "0" with "love", the innocent white garb and polite showing of new balls.

[Kyrgios] also favours the honest poetics of basketball trash talk and advocates for more open rivalries in tennis because that reflects how many players truly feel about one another and is what the fans want to see: that is, real tennis.

Kyrgios pushes niceties aside and reminds us of the savagery that invigorates sport and arguably life.

By smashing a ball at Nadal's head during their latest Wimbledon encounter Kyrgios was reiterating, "I'm not here to be your friend. We're not friends anyway."

He also favours the honest poetics of basketball trash talk and advocates for more open rivalries in tennis because that reflects how many players truly feel about one another and is what the fans want to see: that is, real tennis.

In an extended podcast interview this year, Kyrgios confirmed what many of us suspect to be true of professional tennis players.

The players on tour whom he clashes with the most are so "zoned in" that they are "not normal". They won't say "hello" to him or others. They have no personality, "perspective" or "humility" and can't understand that all they do is "hit a ball" while "there are people in the world who don't have water".

His assessment of the three greatest male players of our time (all of whom he defeated in his first encounter) says a great deal about Kyrgios and his values.

The truth according to Nick Kyrgios is that Roger Federer is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) because he is a genuine icon who many - including Kyrgios - have tried haplessly to emulate. Federer and Kyrgios are both creative and distinctive players who have been coachless: the former because didn't need one; the latter because he won't listen.

Kyrgios refers to Nadal as his "total opposite", in large part because Rafa is determined, industrious and does whatever his coach, primarily Uncle Toni, demands.

Kyrgios regards clay as the most "uncreative" surface to play on due to its slowness which rewards players who can sit back and "grind it out". This suggests that the King of Clay is somewhat one-dimensional and vulnerable to junk balls and piddling underarm serves.

As for Djokovic, he "just wants to be liked" or even loved. For Kyrgios, Novak's desire to be "like Roger" has become a "sick obsession" that is exemplified in his "cringeworthy" trademark celebration: an open-hearted thumbs up gesture of gratitude to the fans and to the Almighty.

Often Djokovic's affection is unrequited. The latest example being when he retired injured at the US Open and was booed off court.

Kyrgios' approach to fandom is also strikingly honest. He has no desire to crowd surf and largely does not care what the public think of him (notwithstanding his over one million Instagram followers).

After his first round US Open victory, Kyrgios was slammed as "gross" for briskly wiping his crotch with a towel before giving it to the crying and crooning crowd.

Kyrgios may well have been acting instinctively, but his towelling reveals the true nature and flavour of the celebrity "Kool-Aid" that many of us gulp.

Instead of adoration and honours, Nick Kyrgios adores living in Canberra, drinking an ice coffee at the same place every morning, playing basketball and video games and above all, being with his family.

He openly does not love tennis and revealed that it has taken him to "dark places". Kyrgios abhors all the travel and regrets that after his breakout year when his grandmother died, he spent too much time on tour and not enough with her.

This is perhaps the best response to criticisms that Nick Kyrgios tanks matches and is not fulfilling his potential. Professional tennis - the prestige, the attention and to some extent, the money - says Kyrgios, "does not make me happy". "I just want to have fun."

Moreover, he is not trying to be a role model. Indeed, by not trying Kyrgios questions why we need role models at all.

There is also a logic to his ethic which goes like this, "If you could win $8,000,000 in prize money by partying rather than training. What would you do?"

Nick Kyrgios' sheer talent and audacity are hard to fathom. But we can relate to his flaws - his frustration, lethargy, mischief - and to his love of place and family. He tantalises us with the constant fear of meltdown and hope of redemption.

Then there's the fact that he's authentically Canberran.

So what's not to like?

  • Kim Huynh is a Canberra-based academic, reporter and tennis player.