WIMBLEDON, England – All white is the dress code at Wimbledon, the oldest and most traditional of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments. So when Nick Kyrgios wears a black hat for his on-court interview, he’s sending a message.
And he did on Saturday night in the No. 1 spot after his emotional, fireworks-filled 6-7(2) 6-4 6-3 7-6(7) win over Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. the No. 4 seeds.
As Wimbledon enters its second week, the women’s tournament is wide open and there is the potential for a Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal men’s final that looks more inevitable by the day. And then there’s Kyrgios, a dangerous and disruptive force who has so much pure talent but is so spirited and combustible, and so attracted and disgusted by his chosen profession that the sport can neither control nor ignore him.
He acts when he feels like it, then disappears for months, only to wreak havoc and make headline-grabbing theater again.
“Everywhere I go I see full stadiums,” he said after his fight against Tsitsipas. “The media love to write that I’m bad for the sport, but clearly not.”
Kyrgios is an immensely talented Australian who has an ambivalent relationship to the rigors and demands of professional tennis. He relishes his role as the game’s great outlaw, unafraid to attack, spit at, or verbally abuse judges and umpires.
He harassed the young workers on the square because they didn’t put fresh towels and bananas in the changing chairs. He smashes bats. One bounced off the ground and almost crashed in the face of a ball boy at a tournament in California this year. His outrageous portrayals regularly earn him tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
He then returns to the court and fires off one of the most dangerous serves in the game. He hosts the kind of magical shotmaking clinic – between the legs, curling forehands, sneaky aces – that other players can only dream of.
He’s the ticking time bomb that fills stadiums and has hordes of young fans. He’s simultaneously the sport’s worst nightmare and its food ticket: hard to watch, but also hard to miss.
If he loses, it’s always the others’ fault. If he wins, it’s because he has overcome every possible force against him – tournament directors, the news media, the tennis establishment, fans who have used racial slurs against him.
“Improvised. Unfiltered. Unmissable,” said @Wimbledon’s Twitter feed on Saturday night as Kyrgios, in all his brilliance and brutality, overwhelmed and outclassed Tsitsipas for over three hours.
All evening, Kyrgios went after the chair umpire and tournament umpires and officials for not failing Tsitsipas after he angrily threw a ball into the crowd and came dangerously close to hitting a fan directly on the fly. Kyrgios claimed the referee would certainly have sent him off if he had done the same. (He can’t be wrong about that.)
The almost endless complaints and interruptions brought Tsitsipas upset. Struggling to keep his composure, he complained to the chair umpire that only one person on the court was interested in playing tennis while the other turned the match into a circus. He then took matters into his own hands and tried to pin Kyrgios down with his shots. The crowd of more than 10,000 grew louder with each confrontation.
It only got more intense after Kyrgios finished off Tsitsipas in the tiebreaker with three irreversible shots – a signature half-volley into the open court; a ripped backhand winner; and a drop shot from the baseline, which died on the turf just outside of Tsitsipas’ reach.
The drama came to a head when Tsitsipas and Kyrgios’ press conferences turned into an eponymous, abusive debate about propriety and who had more friends in the dressing room.
Tsitsipas, who was sure Kyrgios had screwed up the game on purpose – and likely dampened the fact that Kyrgios had beaten him twice in the space of a month – said his teammates needed to come together and set rules that would rein in Kyrgios.
“It’s constant bullying, that’s what he does,” Tsitsipas said of Kyrgios. “He bullies opponents. He was probably a bully himself at school. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like people who put other people down. He also has some good qualities in his character. But if he does — he also has a very evil side to him that, if exposed, can really do a lot of harm to those around him.”
Tsitsipas said he regretted hurling the ball into the crowd but was less remorseful of another, which he smashed over the net and into the scoreboard, earning him a point penalty.
“I was aiming for my opponent’s body, but I missed by a lot,” he said. He then added, “If I feel like others don’t respect me and don’t respect what I’m doing from the other side of the court, it’s absolutely normal on my part to take action and do something about it.”
Kyrgios watched it all on a nearby TV. Minutes later, he sat down behind the mic wearing this black beanie and a t-shirt with former NBA rebel Dennis Rodman on it and a big grin. Once again, Tsitsipas had created a situation where Kyrgios could defeat him, even giving him a rare chance to take the main road and claim to be some kind of innocent.
“He was the one who hit balls at me,” he said of Tsitsipas. “He was the one who hit a spectator. He was the one who smashed it out of the stadium.”
He labeled Tsitsipas as “soft” for allowing himself to have Kyrgios’ conversations with tournament officials.
“We are not cut from the same cloth,” he said of Tsitsipas. “I compete against guys who are real competitors. If he’s affected by that today, it’s holding him back because someone can easily do that and it’s going to throw him out of his game. I just find it soft.”
Tsitsipas’ mother is a former professional player and his father is a tennis coach who raised his sons on the tennis court from an early age. Kyrgios is of Greek and Malay descent, and his father painted houses to earn a living.
“I’m good in the dressing room,” continued Kyrgios, now rolling. “I have many friends, just so you know. I’m actually one of the most popular. I’m hired He is not liked.”
Then one last dagger.
He said he didn’t go onto the pitch to find a friend, to compliment his opponents on their game, and that he had no idea what he did to upset Tsitsipas so much that by the end of the game he barely got him shook hands.
Every time he lost, Kyrgios said even when he was kicked out of games, he would look his opponent in the eye and tell him he was the better man.
“He wasn’t man enough for that today,” he said.
The win propelled Kyrgios into the round of 16, where he will face American Brandon Nakashima on Monday’s Center Court, and two wins from a possible semi-final showdown with Nadal, assuming the 22-time Grand Slam event champion can too keep winning. It would be the ultimate hero versus villain confrontation, a perfect backdrop for all manner of potential Kyrgios explosions and rudeness, but also, as this Twitter feed put it, unmissable theater.
Nadal is known as one of the game’s true gentlemen, a keeper of the unspoken codes between players. He has admired Kyrgios’ talent and questioned the baggage he brings onto the pitch and the ordeal he often causes with referees, especially when his chances of winning start to dwindle.
On Saturday night, after Nadal won his own match and heard about the dispute between Kyrgios and Tsitsipas, he became philosophical when asked when a player crossed the line and if Kyrgios was going too far. It’s a matter of conscience, he said.
“I think everyone needs to go to bed calmly with the things you’ve done,” Nadal said. “And if you can’t sleep calmly and contentedly with yourself, that’s because you’ve done things that probably weren’t ethical.”
How does Kyrgios sleep? Only he knows.