I had my doubts when he first said it, but Nick Kyrgios was absolutely right when he asked not to be compared to Bernard Tomic. Although a prima facie assessment of the careers of the troubled Aussie twosome would suggest uncanny similarities in their character flaws, I’m beginning to think that no one can one-up Kyrgios when it comes to making quagmires out of seemingly benign situations.
Let’s take the most germane example to someone in Kyrgios’ line of work- a tennis match. A tennis match, when played without anything untoward happening in the time between the first point is won and the last point is lost, generally consists of two people hitting a fuzzy yellow ball from one end of the court to the other, running toward wherever the opposing player’s shot happens to land and pausing for breaks in activity at regular intervals.
And yet, if you watched Kyrgios curse, pout and gesticulate his way through one set of his match against Steve Johnson in the opening round of the 2017 Shanghai Masters and pull similarly egregious antics throughout a remarkably odd encounter with Mischa Zverev at the very same Masters event 12 months ago, you would be hard pressed at times to believe that he was playing tennis, or indeed any kind of sport at all. Incompetent line calls, expediently timed shoulder strains and stomach bugs…. the laundry list of excuses doesn’t explain why Kyrgios continually overreacts to physical pain and perceived injustices. Not this time, at least. That’s why the world No.21 was deprived of his first round prize money and slapped with a further $10,000 fine by the ATP on Wednesday; no one’s buying what he’s selling any longer.
Returning to the Tomic comparison, in my view what makes Kyrgios so different to his compatriot and (former?) pal is the intensity of his emotions. While Tomic has become a wooden husk of a man, all too eager to retreat into a cocoon of apathy whenever he is faced with a challenge on court that he deems too difficult to overcome, Kyrgios is content more often than not to sink his teeth into a tough match, grapple with the obstacles that come his way while it’s still competitive, and then if all else fails, throw in the towel when something goes noticeably awry (injury, crowd interference, linesperson myopia- the litany would take a while to exhaust).
Regardless of how he feels about tennis, Kyrgios is a slave to his competitive instincts. He has a hard time accepting defeat when he’s truly invested in a match, which is why he destroyed his racket after losing to Roger Federer in Miami, for instance. However, there are days when Kyrgios is just so nettled by life as a professional tennis player that he doesn’t feel like applying himself in the slightest, or doesn’t want to because he knows that doing so likely wouldn’t change the outcome of the match at hand.
Case in point: last Sunday’s China Open final. Kyrgios knew that by shifting the blame for taking a measly three games off Nadal onto a dodgy line call in the first game of the first set, he would have plausible deniability to deflect accusations of giving up too easily. Sure enough, dear Nick was given a customary grilling once the match was over with. His response? “I lost a bit of composure after a rough line call in the first game of the match and never really recovered.” A garden-variety cop out, right on cue.
Shortly after Kyrgios’ capitulation in the Chinese capital, I began racking my brain to think of a player who is as adept as him at dragging tennis’ reputation through the proverbial mud and failed, for the longest time, to find another candidate that could pass muster. Dan Evans, suspended last week by the ITF for 12 months after testing positive for cocaine, came briefly to mind but the Brit is just too languorous a fellow to be considered Kyrgios’ equal in this regard. When I learned earlier this week that Fabio Fognini had been admonished by the Grand Slam Board to be on his best behavior for the next two seasons on pain of a $96,000 fine and double major tournament ban, I realized that the answer to the conundrum was right under my nose.
In behavioral and tennis terms, the 31-year-old Fognini is a very similar specimen to Kyrgios. He pulls from thin air astonishingly nonchalant displays of impromptu shotmaking, possesses a forehand that can catch fire seemingly at any time he wills it to, makes a habit of playing at 1000% of his ability against Rafael Nadal, and rarely hesitates to freewheel during matches that he can’t be bothered to put any effort into winning. It turns out “The Fog” also excels at fulminating match officials whom he believes to have wronged him; the aforementioned provisional Grand Slam ban arose as a result of him subjecting chair umpire Louise Engzell to a tongue-lashing at this year’s US Open that would embarrass Ilie Nastase in his most brazen of moods.
So what of Fognini and Kyrgios, the two men who embrace the role of pantomime villain while representing a sport steeped in etiquette and adored by people who take every contravention of that prescribed code of conduct as an affront to the game itself and those involved in it? Are they (and the few others like them) hard but redeemable cases who should be handled compassionately so as to help them reform their characters, or incorrigible miscreants deserving of scorn for refusing to comport themselves as sensibly as the overwhelming majority of tennis players do?
I don’t have a strong opinion in either direction because I don’t understand the gestalt of what makes these guys tick. But I will say this: Getting good enough at tennis to play it at the professional level is a soul-sucking, repetitious pursuit that takes an unforgiving toll on individuals who aren’t designed to withstand what it demands from them day in, day out. The physically fragile contingent can escape the prying eyes of the public by nursing their injuries in private without fear of being judged. Unfortunately for the mentally brittle, there is no haven from the grind of the tour, only the cold realization that once they step onto the court, the struggle is theirs, and theirs alone, to bear.