Mailbag: Did ATP go easy on Nick Kyrgios because of his 'Next Big Thing' status?
- A look at whether Kyrgios's suspension and fine were sufficient, plus an alternate way to handle the situation and more on Sharapova and the Hall of Fame.
Happy Wednesday, everyone. Some housekeeping:
1) SportsCenter doyenne, former Tennis Channel talent and current tennis champion, Cari Champion is the guest on the most recent podcast. Think you’ll enjoy this.
2) Our next guest is Mischa Zverev, who was terrifically insightful and ferociously rational. The bad audio quality will be offset by his insight and likability.
3) Icky promotion but I’ve been asked to note the following and so I shall. For New York readers, I’ll be appearing another “In Your Face NY” event on Sunday at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Roz Chast headlines.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Eh Jon, remember me??? Are you still defending Kyrgios? Not even three months and he tanks another match and what a severe reprimand, a Mickey Mouse fine and an eight-week suspension. Give my congrats to the ATP for such BOLD discipline! That behavior would merit, in any other major sport, a substantially higher fine and a much tougher suspension. Geez, I wonder if the Australian Open has something to do with it. Totally gutless move by the ATP.
—Kevin from Montreal
• Quite apart from finding the lone impolite Canadian, Kevin brings up Nick Kyrgios, who overtook Maria Sharapova as the popular conversation topic. (Andy Murray closing in on Novak Djokovic’s top ranking? Serena Williams shutting it down until 2017? The final slots for the WTA’s lollapalooza in Singapore? A distant 3/4/5.)
I’ll start by saying that I thought the ATP handled this one quite deftly. After Kyrgios’s latest tank job, there HAD to be repercussions. And fairly serious ones. Kevin scoffs at eight weeks. Others thought this was draconian. It probably speaks well when there’s no consensus opinion. At the same time, Kyrgios’s episode was so antisocial and such an act of self-sabotage, that it called for a particular sensitivity. The ATP’s punishment and statement—firm yet compassionate—addressed this.
Those of you who complained that the ATP is going easy on Kyrgios because of his “Next Big Thing” status? You might have a point. He’s surrounded by a cadre of enablers. (Who can forgot his brother’s response to Wawrinka-Gate?) His current management is trying desperately to hang onto him as other suitors circle, dangling seven-figure guarantees. (You think they want to inflame the situation with tough love?) He lacks a coach. (As one esteemed coach told me recently, “You want to be the next, next coach. Right now you can’t win; give him to me in a few years.”) Tennis Australia wrings its collective hands while deciding how involved to get.
One of you asked me what I would do. You have an indisputably talented kid—and he is a kid, chronological age be damned—who can become a transcendent No. 1; and who is equally capable of becoming tennis’ answer to Lenny Cook.
Which brings me to how I would address this. Maybe put this in his terms and present him with analogue from another sport.
“Nick, there’s this NBA player who is dripping with talent. Great physique. Great natural talent. He can pull off moves—at critical junctures in the game—that other players don’t even think to attempt. This kid could really transform the sport. He’s charismatic. He’s different. He plays well with that golden young demographic.
There are some hitches, though. It’s unclear how much this kid actually likes basketball. (He’s always going on about tennis.) It’s unclear whether he wants to devote himself to being the best. He doesn’t listen to his coaches much. And the people around him don’t appear willing to challenge him. Maybe worse than that, there are times he doesn’t merely loaf around the court; he actually tries to lose. It’s like he inbounds the ball for the Celtics, but then scores on the Pistons’ basket. And then he trashes the fans—that is, the people paying his salary—when they complain. Cray-cray, I know. Right, mate?
Anyway, I’m curious, Nick. What would you say if this guy was on your team? How would you handle it? You don’t want to cut bait: he’s on his way to becoming a future star. But you can’t baby him either. He’s run out of next chances. And he’s embarrassing himself, his team, the entire sport with his antics. How would you go about trying to get through to him and accelerating his maturity? How would you feel if you were a fan? What would you do to try and make this break right?”
Kyrgios is a disgrace to tennis. Multiple repeat offender. Powers that be think he is marketable and will put fans in the seats so he is treated with kid gloves. If he was lesser ranked player, he would be getting much harsher treatment and condemnation. And at the end of the day, his behavior will be trivialized as marketable humor—just like JMac's who has made a fortune in commercials celebrating his reprehensible demeanor on the court.
• I’d go easy on the McEnroe comparisons. McEnroe’s behavior may have been deplorable (see: basket of, inter alia) but if anything, he cared too much. Actually change that to present tense. Ever seen McEnroe, even in his 50s, play an exhibition? He cares too much NOW.
I'm curious about your thoughts on Billie Jean King and other pillars of the game welcoming Maria into their recent WTT event.
I know that WTT is not under WTA or ITF jurisdiction but I am disappointed that such legends of our sport have essentially declared, "Yes Maria cheated. Yes she was busted. Yes she is currently suspended from the sport that has given us so much, the sport we have worked so hard to build. But we don't care what the ITF or CAS says, we'll welcome Maria with open arms while she is still banned from the game."
I'm not saying to kick Maria while she's down. She made a mistake. Let her pay her dues, then let her play. But to include Maria in their tennis event while she is still under suspension seems unseemly.
• If you want to read a takedown—flawed in logic at times, but entertaining nonetheless—here comes Oliver Brown.
Money quote: “Tennis hit-and-giggles are tough watches at the best of times, but doubly so when they feature this tarnished, incorrigibly entitled swan.” As my kids would say: “Oh, sizz-nap.”
I guess I have the same ambivalence I expressed a few weeks ago about Sharapova’s NBA internship. Not exactly strong optics—nor a show of respect for WADA—when an athlete in the midst of an anti-doping suspension is welcomed so lustily.
The flip side? What’s she supposed to do, sit home and binge watch Gilmore Girls for 15 months? The suspension pertains to sanctioned competition. Is it exceedingly harsh to disinvite her from a hit-and-giggle fundraiser?
Andy Murray is so intelligent and insightful, which makes it so frustrating that he acts like such a brat on court.
• It beats the reverse, I suppose. But there’s also a wealth of social science suggesting that we all behave irrationally and out of character —to the point of unrecognizability—when we are in “hot states.” The super-fantastic and super menschy Dan Arierly nails this in less two minutes:
This “hot state” can be a state of sexual arousal. It can be a state of anger. But it can also be a state competition. In combat, many athletes—Murray among them—behave in a ways they likely later regret. You and I do the same when we get cut off in traffic or someone trips our kid in a soccer game. Once we cool off, we go back to our old selves. Same for Murray. This doesn’t, wholesale, dismiss or excuse bad acting. Plenty of athletes hold it together and refrain from, say, yelling at their supporters, during the aroused state of competition. But I say we give athletes a somewhat wide berth here. Especially when they offset bad acts with “intelligence and insight” the rest of the time. Which Murray does.
Good morning Jon, I am trying to understand how you come to the conclusion that Sharapova's doping was an innocent mistake and not her trying to cheat. She never disclosed she was using the drug as required even though she used it for over 10 years. She doubled up the dosage for tough matches (what kind of diabetics runs in her family that make tough matches and issue). She lives in the U.S but yet takes a drug that cannot be prescribed here. Maybe she explained those things to CAS, but until I hear that explanation she is a cheat to me.
—Pete in Oklahoma
• Okay, one more Sharapova question (out of many—the hits keep coming) this week and then I propose we give it a break. Fair?
As is so often the case, when anti-doping issues arise in sports, it’s not a binary discussion. Much as we’d like to distill it to “Innocence-versus-guilt” or “cheating-versus-wrongful-accusation,” the truth resides in the gray.
There is evidence that suggests that this was a mistake—I would caution against calling it an “innocent mistake”—and not intentional. There is also evidence that, as you note, suggests something more troubling. The Sharapova camp has likened meldonium to aspirin, a popular, easily-obtained substance taken in Russia without second thought. Fine. But that contradicts the explanation that this was taken for grave conditions on the order of an irregular heartbeat, diabetes and magnesium deficiency.
And there’s also the nagging issue of the failure to disclose. Again: I’ve had players tell me that they’ll take a single muscle relaxer before a long flight and be sure to note it on their forms. That as a standard, how do you neglect to list the meldonium that you not only take regularly, but do so in conjunction with exertion (i.e. before matches and practices)? Sharapova would assert that she only thought she had to list what she was taking daily; and that since she took meldonium in conjunction with other supplements—and all were legal—there was no reason to list them.
I always cringe when people start sentences “If any good comes of this….” But I do think that if any good comes of this, athletes are on notice that these forms and emails are to be taken seriously. Not to be ignored. Not even to be delegated. Ask athletes if they want rigorous anti-doping and hands always go up. But that vigor includes self-policing and taking these policies seriously.
• Keep an eye on the ATP Vienna event. Especially the “pre-event exhibition.” As talking gets increasingly serious about changing tennis’ format to become more fan friendly, note that Andy Murray, Dominic Thiem and Tommy Haas are among those playing in a $250,000 winner-take-all “Tie Break Tens format” tournament that will be streamed live on tennis.com and Facebook.
• I was asked to promote this, and so I shall: Best American Sports Writing is out.
• The USTA has concluded its celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month—a month highlighted by multiple Hispanic engagement accomplishments for the year. With tennis participation among Hispanics increasing more than 12% to 1.79 million players around the country in two years, the USTA continues its commitment to growing the sport in the fastest growing segment of the U.S.
• The ITF announced that Caroline Garcia has won the final Fed Cup Heart Award of 2016 for her performance in the World Group semifinals. She is the first French player to receive a Heart Award.
• Venus Williams has committed to play in the 2017 Volvo Car Open, April 1-9, on Daniel Island in Charleston, S.C. She joins World No. 7 Madison Keys and Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig in the player field forming for the WTA premier tournament.
• This week's Long Lost Siblings:
• Reader riff comes from Scott Bean: I read your Mailbag regularly and want to commend you on the great work. Keep it up! I wanted to address the following topic: Since so much of the discussion on whether Yevgeny Kafelnikov should be in the Hall of Fame or not has been centered around subjective criteria (reputation, public perception, how approachable he is, etc.), then I would like to add the following comparison with Safin as a means of defending Kafelnikov, especially if character is deemed to be an important factor for entering the HoF.
As has been established already, after Kafelnikov retired from tennis, he became a professional poker player and golfer (and does both exceptionally well). In addition, he serves as a vice-president of the Russian Tennis Federation. Moreover, when listening to him on the few remaining sources of non-propaganda Russian media, it is clear that he holds no illusions about the people in power and what they are doing to the country.
Safin, in turn, joined the authoritarian United Russia party in 2011. After being "elected" to Russia's federal parliament the same year (and again this year) in one of the most fraudulent elections ever witnessed anywhere, much less in Russia, Safin has been a direct participant in dismantling Russian civil society as we know it. Serving as a pawn, he has voted unabashedly to pass such cynical and repressive laws as a ban on Americans adopting Russian children (many of whom are subsequently doomed to die in orphanages for lack of the necessary medical treatment and care they would otherwise receive in the U.S.); the recognition of organizations as foreign agents that has been used exclusively to destroy organizations the Kremlin disfavors; the massive increase in the authority of the special services to spy on private citizens, and more. Safin has played a big part in helping turn Russia into the graft-ridden, mafia-run dictatorship it is, and all for selfish personal gain.
Not only was Kafelnikov a more successful player than Safin (more titles, match wins, etc.), he didn't sell out and become a faceless Russian "politician" for personal gain at the entire country's expense. The very fact that Safin's political shenanigans have garnered almost no attention in the Western press and apparently deterred no one from voting him into the HoF is simply baffling. He may have been much more popular during his career with the players and fans than Kafelnikov, but how is it that Safin, who has done so much harm to his country and was a less successful player, get elected to the HoF, while Kafelnikov is left out for personality reasons? I would appreciate your view on this issue.