The enigma of Kyrgios: Why all the love for this mean boy?

An interviewer at Wimbledon took a chance the other day and teased Nick Kyrgios. Turns out you’re not allowed to tease Kyrgios. He doesn’t like it one bit. The interview with Lee McKenzie happened on court 1, a couple of minutes after the Australian had beaten Stefanos Tsitsipas with a mix of luxury shots and cheap shots.

(Said cheap shots included screaming, sulking, ranting, whining, insulting the umpire and serving underhand.)

In the aftermath, Kyrgios had patronisingly sympathised with Tsitsipas and his “frustrations” during the match. To which, McKenzie responded with the warmest form of sarcasm: “Well, you hide your frustrations so well, Nick.”

The crowd giggled, but Kyrgios refused to dignify her insolence with a laugh or even a sheepish grin. He just pouted and glowered at her, flexing his manicured jawline like a junk-addled Gucci model. Kyrgios often behaves like a 6.3m toddler, but hell, even actual toddlers can laugh at themselves.

Earlier in the interview, he claimed to be a big fan of Tsitsipas, although nobody believed this. At any rate, the feeling clearly wasn’t mutual. Tsitsipas declared in his own press conference a few minutes later that Kyrgios was a “bully” with an “evil side”.

But Kyrgios ladled out some fake respect: “I love him and I’m close to his brother.” (Translation: “I love his brother.”)

While the crowd lapped up this nonsense, the cameras cut to his girlfriend Costeen Hatzi, who was staring off to the side with a glazed expression and chewing her lip, perhaps in order to stop it saying “OMG you’re such a freaking liar, Nick.”

Am I alone in struggling to make sense of Kyrgios? I feel I should have some time for him  but I just don’t. He’s a problem for me and maybe for a whole generation of middle-aged sports fans who grew up worshipping impossibly arrogant athletes whose talents were huge enough to cash the cheques their arrogance wrote.

And, make no mistake, Kyrgios’s talent is big enough to cash almost any behavioural cheque. In 1980s terms, he plays tennis with the improvisatory subtlety of Henri Leconte combined with the imperious baseline power of Ivan Lendl. The serve is a bazooka, the drop shot is a kiss. Anything can happen in any given Kyrgios rally. So what’s not to love?

My formative sporting greats included the likes of Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona, Benni McCarthy and Herschelle Gibbs. All of them were egomaniacs – and some of them were none too bright. I loved them all the same. So why can’t I love Nick Kyrgios? Am I just too old to get it? What exactly turns me off?

The difference might be in his character but it may be the manufactured character of digital celebrity. Superstar egos are being bloated out of all proportion by the virtual cocaine of social-media love. Trump’s Twitter feed reaffirmed his worst instincts. It deepened the groove of his meanness. Kyrgios may be better looking than Trump but his energy isn’t very different.

And the crowd’s love for that ugly energy is weird. How the hell could Kyrgios be the crowd favourite over Tsitsipas, whose own flashes of indiscipline were systematically goaded from him by his opponent? John McEnroe got pilloried by the crowds in his day and he wasn’t half as rude as Kyrgios.

Kyrgios isn’t a bad boy, he’s just a mean boy. His presence doesn’t feel exuberant or defiant, it just feels vindictive. Even when he’s making an effort to be “charming”, it feels like a calculation, a tactical performance. The bite is always waiting. After making a bad unforced error, he often reflexively glares up at his box and snaps at his entourage: his physio, his dad, his girlfriend. Give me more love. Why don’t you support me? It’s your fault!

It’s no shock that Kyrgios’s previous girlfriend laid charges of assault against him this week .

But why all the love for this mean boy? Something has changed in the public reading of character. A celebrity’s capacity to bully and abuse and deflect and aggressively self-pity – to perform inchoate collective anger as a kind of cathartic pantomime – is read by the audience as honesty, as virility. If you’re being a dick, the logic goes, you’re being real, and for that you deserve love and acclaim.

Well, not from me.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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