There’s a disconcerting problem in tennis – violence. Often it’s not intentional. But ultimately it’s uncaring and dangerous.
At the 2020 US Open, Novak Djokovic hit a ball that flattened a linesperson. He was promptly kicked out. At this year’s Australian Open, Nick Kyrgios hit a ball into the stands that struck a young boy who burst into tears. A few weeks ago, Alexander Zverev smashed his racket into the umpire’s stand four times. He was fined and given a year’s probation. Today, after his loss to Rafa Nadal, Kyrgios bashed his racket into the court and it careened toward the head of a young ball boy, who ducked out of the way. When a New York Times writer asked him about it in his press conference, Nick said, “I’m human. Things happen like that. Obviously it was a very misfortunate bounce…If I did that a million times over it wouldn’t have gone that way…That’s a question you’re going to say after a three-hour battle against Nadal? That’s what you come here with?”
The reporter said, “Well, I saw a kid duck.” Nick replied, “He ducked. Duck. He ducked. He ducked. He ducked. He ducked. Jesus. All right…It was a complete accident. I didn’t hit him…Great question, though. Unbelievable stuff. Congratulations, man…People like you spoil the sport.”
For his part, Rafa Nadal said, “These situations are happening more and more often. The ATP should put a stop to this. Otherwise sooner or later something major will happen.”
Tennis loves differences. They’re what makes the world go round. The volatile John McEnroe was a car crash about to happen. You never knew what you were going to get.
His great rival, placid Bjorn Borg, was as smooth as a Swedish lake in February. Andre Agassi was an entertainment machine, with many a celebrity girlfriend, who always enlivened the news cycle. Pete Sampras told us: “I’m just a tennis player. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Today’s quarterfinal between Nadal and Kyrgios promised to be one of the best popcorn matches at Indian Wells in eons.
Rafa is the ultimate gentleman. The kind of well-mannered fellow any gal would love to take home and show off to Mom and Dad. We’ve never heard a cuss word emerge from his mouth, no? Smashing tennis rackets is against his religion. If he barks at an ump, it’s worth a headline.
The charismatic Nick Kyrgios is different. Sorry, Reilly Opelka, no one stirs the tennis milkshake quite like the free-spirited Aussie.
Umpires who call his matches should get hazard pay. The most modest of slights will trigger Nick: “Woe is me.” Kyrgios, who won the Australian Open doubles title but is only ranked No. 132 in singles, sees tennis as an entertainment happening. He follows the ratings and boasts about the popularity of his matches. He loves to put on a show – he’s box office. Raw and fierce, he’s in the wonderful, edgy tradition of Pancho Gonzales, Ille Nastase, Connors, McEnroe, Agassi and Marat Safin – a loose cannon who’s as explosive as his serve.
With Nick, anything goes: tweeners, underhand serves, leaping overheads, feuds with fans, celebrities, officials, players and his own Friends Box. And, yes, he delivers some of the most spectacular shot-making the sport’s ever seen.
He first emerged in 2014, at just 19, and shocked Nadal, the world No. 1, at Wimbledon. Five years later in Acapulco, Kyrgios took down Nadal en route to winning the tourney. Menacing and brilliant, Kyrgios riled up the crowd, rallied from behind, saved three match points and complained that Nadal was taking too long to serve.
Rafa was not pleased: “He’s a player who has enormous talent…[but] he lacks respect for the crowd, his opponent and himself.” Nick shot back: “He doesn’t know anything about me. I’m not going to listen at all…People are different – so I’m not going to take that into consideration.”
Then it was Nadal’s Uncle Toni’s turn. His view: “Rafa is totally right. [Kyrgios] lacks education and smartness. He should be fighting for the top rankings, and instead he is number 40…He has been disrespectful too many times to get back on track.”
Describing Nadal as “salty,” the unfiltered Kyrgios told Ben Rothenberg: “When he wins, it’s fine, he’ll credit the opponent…But as soon as I beat him, it’s just like, ‘He has no respect for me, my fans and…the game.’…And then Uncle Toni came out saying, ‘He lacks education.’…I did 12 years at school, you idiot. I’m very educated. I understand that you’re upset I beat your family again.”
In 2019, after Nick blasted a forehand at Nadal at Wimbledon, he got a code violation for unsportsmanlike behavior. Asked if he would apologize to Rafa, Nick responded, “Why?…I didn’t hit him. Hit his racquet, no?…I won the point…I don’t care…The dude has got how many Slams, how much money in the bank account?…He can take a ball to the chest, bro’…I was going for him. Yeah, I wanted to hit him square in the chest.”
Then Krygios mocked Rafa at the 2020 Australian Open. Rafa commented, “When he does stuff that, in my opinion is not good, I don’t like. When he plays good tennis and he shows passion for this game, he is a positive player.”
Today, Indian Wells fans loved all the contrasts. One guy hates clay, the other is the king of clay. One is one of the fastest players, the other is one the slowest. Krygios is coachless, Rafa has multiple coaches and a hefty entourage. Nick says he doesn’t really care if he doesn’t win a Slam. Rafa has won 21 Slams.
Today we saw the core difference between the free-spirited entertainer/shot-meister and one of the toughest competitors in all of sport.
Krygios broke fast from the gate. The Aussie, who earlier in his career won each of the first three matches he played against the Big Three, took advantage of two Rafa forehands and a wretched double fault to break the undefeated Spaniard.
Then, when Krygios was serving for the first set, he blinked. Just two points away from the set, his forehand went awry. The Aussie had saved all nine breakpoints he’d faced in the tourney. But Nadal now broke, and Nick soon crumbled. He shook his head, smashed his racket, and pounded a courtside ball container. Here we saw the fragility of a mercurial man.
In the critical first-set tiebreak, Krygios’ focus wavered. He fell far behind. He swatted one forehand far off court and then told a courtside fan, “Shut the f–k up.” He got his second code penalty and lost the tiebreak 7-0.
To his credit, the popular Aussie righted his considerable ship. He took advantage of some Nadal backhand errors, raced to a fine Rafa dropshot and flicked an inspired backhand overhead to claim the second set 7-5. The brilliant athlete with such flashy power was in full form.
Nick had two early break points in the third set, but couldn’t convert. Then at 3-3 his serve dipped, his level dropped and a critical double fault gave Nadal a key 4-3 lead. Focus, competitive skill and execution at crunch time are critical. Nick blinked. Rafa did what he had to do.
Soon, at 5-4, Nadal blasted an overhead winner to claim the gripping 7-6 (0), 5-7, 6-4 battle in 2:46.
Then, Kyrgios furiously smashed his Yonex racket. It flew across the court, bouncing perilously close to a ball boy.
Questions soon ricocheted around the press room. What if the ball boy hadn’t been able to duck? Will Krygios be fined? Was the modest apology Nick finally issued too little, too late? Has any other player squandered such sublime talent? And, ultimately, does this wonderfully gifted man simply fear failure, and find assorted ways – tanking shots, checking out at crunch time, not having a coach or committing to a full schedule – to empower his failures?