At January’s Australian Open, as a red-shirted, racket-smashing Nick Kyrgios sipped from one spectator’s beer and called another a “numbnut” en route to his men’s doubles title with Thanasi Kokkinakis, the collective query on everybody’s lips was: I wonder how this would go down at Wimbledon.
Five months later a number of Britain’s back pages have answered: “Nasty Nick” is “cretinous” and a “flagrant, unpleasant narcissist”. Back in Australia, he is still just Kyrgios being Kyrgios.
That very name means different things to different people. About one-third of the country has him pegged as the bad guy, petulant and unsportsmanlike and practically begging to be hated. “Wimbledon could just do without Kyrgios and his boorish antics,” wrote the Australian’s sport editor, Wally Mason.
Another third laments he is treated unfairly by the public and the media, citing racial undertones in coverage and a tendency to turn him into a caricature.
“In some ways, it makes perfect sense that even during a year where he has already won a doubles grand slam in Melbourne and is playing the best and most compelling tennis of his career at Wimbledon, while experiencing racism on court and absurd accusations from opponents like [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, he’s still portrayed as the bad guy,” the Age columnist, Osman Faruqi, wrote on the weekend.
“It’s the inevitable consequence of nearly a decade of sometimes legitimate but often completely disproportionate coverage of Kyrgios.”
For most of the rest he is a curiosity. A precociously talented, inherently flawed individual who offers tennis fans brilliant tennis and non-tennis fans a reason to watch. A player who does not have a coach and keeps fit with a local Sydney basketball group but does, at the minute, appear to care very much about his singles tennis career.
Whether he is a curiosity worth getting behind appears to depend very much on which elements of his complex psyche are on display at any given occasion.
In 2020, he became something of an unlikely national hero when, during the bushfire crisis, he pledged $200 to the firefighters for every ace he hit that summer, a move which sparked a wave of similar offers from sportspeople around the world.
That same year he was anointed as “St Nick” for his moral leadership during the coronavirus pandemic (it featured – unsurprisingly – verbal tit-for-tat with Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker).
Since then there has been a plentiful patchwork of resilience and histrionics, maturity and puerility, confidence and insecurity, and the fickle court of public opinion has ebbed and flowed with each success and indiscretion. They have all been on display in one form or another at Wimbledon.
Pat Cash, Australia’s celebrated 1987 Wimbledon champion, accused Kyrgios of “cheating” at this tournament and said he has “brought tennis to the lowest level”. Australian doubles great Todd Woodbridge says he can achieve a career high with a breakthrough major title – if he can master the art of “professionalism”.
And as Kyrgios stands poised to become the first Australian man since Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2005 to reach a grand slam semi-final, many other high-profile Australians in the sport have kept their powder dry.
That may be mere coincidence, but there is a sense it is difficult to know quite what to say in public at this point, given any praise or criticism could be rendered fallacious once Wednesday’s quarter-final against Chilean Cristian Garín has played out.
“Yes, Kyrgios has added an element of danger to the game,” read one letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday. “But if the sports media focused more on his brilliant play and less on his anger [mostly with himself], the sky could be the limit. Go, Nick.”