Mailbag: Breaking down the Kyrgios controversy and its impact on tennis
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The Kyrgios questions are still coming fast and furious, but—if only as a symbolic gesture—we’ll start elsewhere and then return:
Here is another example of how classy Nadal is.
• Anyone who has spent much time in the sport knows that there exists a wealth of these stories. I heard one recently about an American tennis fan who’d brought his kids to Wimbledon a few years ago for the express purpose of watching Nadal play. Nadal, however, had lost the afternoon they arrived. Somehow Nadal caught wind of this story and—despite having been bounced from the tournament—invited the children to his residence the next morning to meet him and snap some photos.
To me, anyway, this is what remains so mystifying and infuriating about Nadal’s pace of play issues. Here is a guy who behaves so thoroughly decently so much of the time. Why let a few seconds of your routine threaten all that?
I see from your Twitter feed that you've finally acknowledged that Nick Kyrgios's on-court behavior has crossed a line. Sadly, it's you (and guys like you) who created the Kyrgios monster. For years you've been looking the other way, defending his childish behavior as being "colorful" and "good for the game." When you keep patting him on the head and telling him how cute he is, you can't be surprised if he thinks it's okay to insult not only his opponent, but also a countryman and a young woman who had NOTHING to do with the match he was playing. If Kyrgios crossed a line this week, it's partly because so many people in the media continued to cheer on his "youthful exuberance" every time he approached that line.
—Judy Adams, Los Angeles
• My knee jerk instinct is one of self-defense and to fashion an alibi that goes something this like: Listen, I call him colorful when he dyes his hair and wears pink Beats and tries trick shots. I’m willing to cut him slack when he bounces a racket or even tanks an irrelevant return game. But what happened the other night, that’s in a different universe from his previous indiscretions, such as they were.
But, sadly, I think Judy raises a fair point. When those of us defended Kyrgios in the past in the name of charisma and personality and color, we were enabling the behavior that lead to last to week’s abomination. Classic parenting mistake. Kids love to push boundaries. Tell a child it’s okay to sneak into a second movie after the one they paid for ended and it’s something less than a surprise when the kid turns into a shoplifter the next year. (Real life example!)
In the case of Kyrgios some of us helped create this ugliness by sanctioning, defending and in some cases encouraging the build-up behavior. We want color. We want showmen. We want players who acknowledge fans and we want the entertainment factor. We don't mind brashness and kids who challenge authority. The Ghost of Agassi looms here, too. He was dismissed as the irreverent punk and look how he turned out.
There are obviously a lot of angles to this story, from the humiliating of a woman to the subtext of race/culture. But I was struck by the culture of enabling. We got a real glimpse into how athletes—especially young and potentially profitable—are sheltered from reality. After Kyrgios lost at Wimbledon, I overheard one of his advisors telling Kyrgios he had done nothing wrong, that any fines or discipline would be fought and that he shouldn't take any [expletive] in his press conference. Essentially: Haters gonna hate, but you’ve done nothing wrong.
After last week’s debacle, we saw how Kyrgios’ mom rushed to defend him. And how his brother—a full day later; after surely knowing the GPS coordinates of public sentiment—made the situation worse. We choose our social media feeds, so I suspect for every one piece of criticism, Kyrgios also read a note of support, blaming political correctness or urging him not to change. We really got a glimpse of how athletes (swaddled with yes-folk, unconditional family support and diehard fans) can become so insulated. So much so that you wonder whether, even today, Kyrgios knows how poorly this played out.
Just a quick thought amidst all this escalating Kyrgios chaos: as this makes its way around the mainstream sports media, might some argue that tennis can use a little bit of crassness now and then? What Nick and Christos Kyrgios said is indefensible, but we do often complain about tennis' exposure in the U.S., and still carry a country club, uptight reputation. Along the lines of "any publicity is good publicity," won't a ton of people be really interested to watch Kyrgios play in New York now? I know I am. Imagine if by some stroke of draw magic there was a rematch...
—Willie T., Brooklyn
• Brooklyn represents! First I think “Any publicity is good publicity” is lazy and cynical. Second, this didn’t cross the line; it obliterated the line. Third, others have made the same point as Willie but I question the value. We might be more invested in Kyrgios’ fate at the U.S. Open now. But to what end? It isn’t building brand loyalty. We might all fix our gaze on the proverbial car crash. But it doesn’t make us want to go out and buy the Ford minivan that has overturned on the side of the road.
Long time listener first time caller…
I am perplexed by all of the really bad press and negative emotions that Nick Kyrgios is stirring up among the tennis world. He smashed his racket, he said a few “bad words” and he had the audacity to insult someone’s girlfriend!
I watch a lot of sports and actions like this wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar, and would quite possibly be seen as displaying mental toughness and being a competitor. In the NBA (Nick does like the round-ball) Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett immediately come to mind as being painted in a positive light when comments they have made on the court are a little over the line (re: Tim Duncan's mom).
There is nothing wrong with being a villain and the massive cheers that John Isner got are proof that this is actually good drama.
—Stephen W, Los Angeles, Ca.
• Again, we’re all for dissent and disparate opinions here. I mentioned on Twitter last week that a colleague came into my office last week and asked me to explain what was so bad. “Aren’t those the kind of remarks that get said on the bottom of the pile in the NFL after EVERY DOWN?”
Why the outcry: I think there’s a lot going on here. Some is context. For better or worse (of course I'd argue the former) tennis has a tradition and expectation of etiquette in a way the NFL does not. It’s like saying: “Big deal that he belched during the presidential debate. That happens every night in a frat house basement.” As a wise man said, situations matter.
I think, too, that there is a difference between a team construct and an individual construct. As one of you nicely put it on Twitter:
More context: I said on the radio the other day that this was like Jameis Winston trashing Aaron Rogers. Kyrgios, a 20-year-old with monstrous upside but zero titles, hasn’t earned the right to be anything but deferential to Wawrinka, a well-liked veteran with Hall of Fame credentials.
Unvarnished truth: what I think got a lot of people within tennis so upset was the specificity. This wasn’t just a random throwaway insult, a more vulgar version of Your Mama Wears Combat Boots. This was deeply personal. It was a highly sensitive topic. (Let’s just say it: the ugly and public dissolution of Wawrinka’s marriage has been the subject of much rumor in tennis and Kyrgios knew this and targeted it accordingly.) That it implicated another ATP player and a WTA player—both of whom were thrown under tour bus; neither of whom had a chance to defend themselves—made it still more distasteful.
You probably saw the Aussie's post-match comments, which I've paraphrased: “I've apologized publicly and privately, I've been fined, I think we can move on.” Maybe he can, but the tennis fans? I’m curious as to what you think he can do to improve his image? Grow up?
• I love how people committing these antisocial acts—and this is not limited to athletes—declare that it’s time to move on. You want to say, “Not really your determination to make.” And then, at least in this case, add, “Sorry to tell you that, mate.”
It’s time to stop chalking Kyrgios’ antics up to “youthful exuberance.” He is boorish and seemingly out of control. Do you think Lleyton Hewitt can really help him?
—Kelly G., Louisville, Ky.
• Inasmuch as there is any gallows humors here….the day before the debacle, the big Kyrgios news was that he was working with Lleyton Hewitt. This was almost so trite as to be inevitable. “Coming up at 11: The reformed Australian bad boy now taking his accumulated wisdom and helping the new Australian bad boy avoid mistakes.” Thinking poor Hewitt got a little more than he bargained for here.
Why is Tennis Channel not showing WTA matches from Cincinnati? If it’s a WTA decision, it’s pretty shortsighted and foolish.
—Frank, New York
• This is still another verse in the long running ballad: “Tennis Can't Get out its Own Way.” I’m in the bag for Tennis Channel so know this in advance, but long story short: the USTA controls the rights to the WTA matches in Cincinnati. Historically, in the absence of a bidder, the USTA gives Tennis Channel these matches. The exposure is great, builds audience for the U.S. Open and fortifies Cincinnati as a stalwart event ahead of the Slam in New York.
This year—unexpectedly and at the last minute—the USTA told Tennis Channel that these women’s matches were not available, at least not without a fee. This surprise announcement came days after Tennis Channel televised the Washington D.C. event, which was, by all accounts including ratings, a smashing success but exposed tensions in the U.S. Open Series. (Fans can decide whether this was causation or correlation.)
So Tennis Channel aired exclusively men’s matches (rights negotiated through the ATP), while the USTA essentially said it would rather warehouse these women’s matches, than provide them as they had in the past. If the USTA would like to explain how this conforms with the mission of growing and promoting tennis, I would happily cede the space.
There is a lot of typical tennis in fighting and the usual conflict-o-rama going on here. Many of you also were right in wondering how the WTA feels knowing that their players’ matches were not being televised.
But there’s the net-out: tennis fans lose again, their loyalties again put to the test by the sport’s leaders.
Ryan Harrison sure does receive a lot of wild cards for someone ranked so habitually around 150 for most of his career. He recently received one in Atlanta over a much better American, Denis Kudla, who proved it by qualifying and getting to the semis there. Does Harrison hold the record for modern-day ATP wild cards by a U.S. player since 2010?—Steve, Charlotte, N.C.
• For the data viz crowd: I would like to see a representation of which players have received the most wild cards and which of them have made the most (and least) use of their opportunities. We had a reader kindly undertake our draw/seeding FAQ request. Anyone want to take this up?
Is it possible we've held Nadal to too high a standard in terms of comebacks? This is his third or fourth. Could it be that an aging champion might take a little more time at this stage in his career? He clearly still wants it, no?
• A lot of feedback to last week’s disquisition on Nadal. In descending order of likelihood I would say:
1) One Slam
2) No Slams
3) Two Slams
4) Reclaims No. 1 ranking
5) More than two Slams
Andrea Petkovic's excellent reading list in the Mailbag made me appreciate again how smart and thoughtful many tennis players are. I'm wondering what other players come to mind as being particularly interesting when it comes to non-tennis life. Is there a player who's an accomplished cook, or knows a lot about classical music, etc.?
• We should do this in the form of a “Wait, Wait don't Tell Me” trivia question. Which of these is true:
1) John Isner is expert on Shostakovich symphonies.
2) Angelique Kerber has her pilot’s license.
3) Dominic Thiem makes a flawless soufflé.
4) Mardy Fish is a scratch golfer, capable of playing on the Seniors Tour.
Seriously, I think part of what makes Petkovic remarkable is that she is an elite athlete, which, almost necessarily requires singular devotion for years. You wonder: where the hell does she have the time (and inclination) to learn so much about so many topics?
Is Nick Kyrgios the Donald Trump of tennis?
—Nick, Montclair, New Jersey
• One has elaborately dyed hair, an affectation that he will one day look back on with regret. The other is Nick Kyrgios.
• Your must-read of the day: Former WTA player Neha Uberoi on her painful journey from tennis to self-discovery.
• All the more reason to praise Serena: the math.
• U.S. Open women’s wild cards: Louisa Chirico, Samantha Crawford, Nicole Gibbs, Sofia Kenin, Jamie Loeb, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sachia Vickery and Oceane Dodin.
• U.S. Open men’s wild cards: Jared Donaldson, Bjorn Fratangelo, Ryan Harrison, Austin Krajicek, Ryan Shane, Frances Tiafoe, Lleyton Hewitt and Pierre-Hughes Herbert.
• Former French Open boys’ champion Bjorn Fratangelo, 22, of Pittsburgh, will make his Grand Slam main draw debut at the 2015 U.S. Open after winning the USTA Pro Circuit’s U.S. Open Wild Card Challenge this weekend.
• Starting in 2016, the NCAA Division I men's and women's tennis championships will utilize the no-ad scoring format.
• The U.S. wheelchair tennis team won four medals at the Parapan American Games in Toronto. Kaitlyn Verfuerth, 30, of Port Washington, Wis., earned the women’s singles silver medal today, while Jon Rydberg, 37, of Saint Paul, Minn., earned silver in men’s singles. Emmy Kaiser, 25, of Fort Mitchell, Ky., took home the women’s singles bronze medal with a win over Chile’s Francisca Mardones. Yesterday, Kaiser and Verfuerth won the women’s doubles bronze medal, defeating Chile’s Macareana Cabrillana and Francisca Mardones.
• For the seventh consecutive year, exciting women’s professional tennis will take place in the fall in Las Vegas. This year’s Red Rock Pro Open, a USTA Women’s $50,000 Pro Circuit tournament with WTA players ranging in the world rankings from No. 75 to No. 275, will include 64 singles players (32 qualifying and 32 main draw), and a 16-team doubles draw.
• USTA Foundation has granted 53 high school students a variety of college scholarships totaling $373,000.
• Separated at birth: Nick Kyrgios' new hairstyle and Neapolitan ice cream!