NEW YORK – No one can explain what goes on inside Nick Kyrgios’s head these days, but the outside is a show unto itself. Tuesday night, the most reviled man in tennis walked out of Arthur Ashe Stadium clad in black, jaw bristling with a pirate’s goatee, black Mohawk erupting atop his skull. Tan highlights and day-glo footwear undermined the villainous affect, and the fact that he’d lost didn’t help. Only one part of his get-up, though, was completely wrong.
Buzzed into the right side of the 20-year-old Australian’s cranium was an EKG-like scrawl—the sign, in an emergency room, of a heart vitally alive. It should have been a flat line. The career of the game’s most exciting talent, we’ve heard, is in critical condition. Worse, one of tennis’ most revered codes—a way of life, really—may well be very much dead.
Consider this, then, a kind of elegy. The Aussie Way was one of the down-under nation’s great gifts to the world, baked into its sporting culture in the early 20th century by coach Harry Hopman, personified by Hall of Famers Frank Sedgman, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe, and last seen in purest form in the late-90s career of Pat Rafter, handsome winner of two U.S. Opens who pierced many a bid at ego-inflation by referring to himself as a “piece of s---”.
Anyone familiar has their favorite Aussie Way summation: First to the net, first to the bar. If you’re hurt don’t play, if you play don’t hurt. But in essence it’s a form of mate-ship that turned the ultimate individual game into a team sport, made up of equal parts discretion, humility and fanatic pride. True Aussies went stone-faced at losses and bad calls and wayward shots, looked the opponent in the eye and offered a firm handshake at the net; once, when American Cliff Richey gave Emerson the dead fish at Queens, Emerson clamped down and dragged him all the way to the umpire’s chair. True Aussies kept private affairs private. And they never, ever, would hurt a mate in public.
That Kyrgios breached decorum—never mind Aussie code—by muttering to Stan Wawrinka, during a match in Montreal last month, that fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis “banged your girlfriend,” goes without saying. “He drew Kokkinakis into the situation,” said Australian commentator Fred Stolle, a three-time Wimbledon finalist. “That just doesn’t happen.”
But the “sledging”—the commonwealth’s quaint term for trash-talk—was only the ugliest in a string of incidents involving the new wave of male talent from Oz. The highest-ranked Aussie, No. 24 Bernard Tomic, was bounced from his nation’s Davis Cup squad after a tirade against Tennis Australia officials, including Rafter, at Wimbledon this year, then, as Rafter put it, “hit rock-bottom” when he was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest during a party in a posh Miami Beach hotel room. In August, American Ryan Harrison nearly came to blows with Kokkinakis during qualifying Cincinnati, declaring to The New York Times, “I will bury him. Wawrinka should’ve decked Kyrgios, and I should deck that kid.”
Taken together, all of it marked a generational change that may well be irreversible. “There was no ego,” said Stolle of an era in which, on the morning of at least one of the Wimbledon finals he lost to Roy Emerson, he had his breakfast cooked for him by his roommate—Roy Emerson. “Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case the last 12 months, and it’s a shame. There’s so much money out there in the game now, so the parents are out on the tours with the players. A lot of times, that’s the problem.”
In his 7–5, 6–3, 4–6, 6–1, loss to Andy Murray Tuesday night—a prime display of a professional dismantling a mere talent—Kyrgios unleashed his usual mix of electric shotmaking and brain-freeze decision-making. He cracked line-kissing forehands off his back foot, hit shots between his legs—even successfully—flung his racket on one follow-through and pretended to sleep during a changeover. “Just taking a nap, I guess,” Kyrgios explained after. “It’s good for you.”
He also demonstrated a remarkable cluelessness about the still-rippling effect of the bad-boy antics. “Well, I don’t think Thanasi is in that category,” Kyrgios said. “Myself and Bernard? It’s so funny: Bernard, he’s harmless; he’s just a normal kid. I don’t really understand where he gets this reputation from—or where I get it from, at all. We show emotion out there. We might not be the most usual tennis players you see. Somehow we got this reputation that’s just ridiculous.”
As for the sledging itself, Kyrgios will play out the next six months under the threat of a 28-day suspension and $25,000 fine that kicks in only if he misbehaves. It hardly seems onerous. “I’d like to think that I’m going to learn from it,” he said after Tuesday’s match. “I think I have. I think I’m on the right path. I don’t any of us in this room right now were perfect at 20. Speak up if you were.”
There was no reply in the U.S. Open press room—“Thought so,” Kyrgios said—and maybe at 20 he shouldn’t be expected to know how deeply and widely the cultural line he crossed runs. The Aussie Way infected not just Aussies; U.S. tennis great Pete Sampras assumed his on-court stoicism after absorbing film of Laver and Rosewall as a kid. Roger Federer’s early sense of drop-shots as cheap, of Hawkeye as unseemly, were formed by his Aussie coach, Peter Carter. After Hopman left Australia in 1969 to run the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island, his code found its match in bad-boy supreme John McEnroe. But Mac’s mixed doubles partner—and the closest thing to a public conscience in today’s game—was enthralled.
“I grew up loving Australia and the Australian code,” said commentator Mary Carillo, who spent years at Hopman’s as student and coach. “That’s who I wanted to be.”
So, yes, she finds it ironic that Kyrgios, in controversy’s wake, has been taken in hand by Lleyton Hewitt. Not so much because the 34-year old Hewitt, unlike his new charge, has never played a loose point in his life; but because Hewitt, in a sense, was the swing figure between the old Aussies and the new. With his backwards baseball cap, constant “Come on!”s, and occasional rude comment, Hewitt never fit a classic mold. In 2001, early in his run to the U.S. Open title, he challenged the calls of a black line judge while playing black American James Blake, yelling, “Look at him! Look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is.”
Hewitt, who on Tuesday won the first match of his final U.S. Open with a 6–0, 7–6(2), 1–0 (ret.) win over Aleksandr Nedovyesov, always denied that he made the comment with racist intent, and Blake defused the issue by taking him at his word. “James totally let him out of that; he could’ve let Lleyton have it and nobody would’ve objected,” Carillo said. “But he didn’t. Blake saved Lleyton. It was classy. It was…Australian.”
Hewitt went on to become a Davis Cup stalwart, and is expected to be named his country’s next captain; part of his mentorship of Kyrgios, which included a pre-Open getaway to Hewitt’s home in the Bahamas, is designed to get Kyrgios’s head right for Australia’s semifinal tie with Britain later this month. “Yeah, I do feel for him,” Hewitt said. “Yeah, he’s a good kid.”
Indeed, only one bad-boy seems appreciate the crisis in Aussie tennis. The 22-year old Tomic agrees that he and his peers need to grow up. “Nick’s in the rollercoaster today so he has to handle it the best as he can,” Tomic said after beating Damir Dzumhur, 5–7, 7–6(4), 6–4, 6–3 Tuesday; he’ll meet Hewitt in the second round. “We’re our own individuals, and the next ten years is going to be like this. It’s not going to be all good, that’s for sure. We have to work on it as best we can. Can we be very good the next 10, 12 years? I cannot guarantee you this.
“Maturity is the biggest key—also, it’s having a lot to do with money coming in. At that age, when that sort of stuff’s around, it’s tough to control….It’s up to us to change this. We have to turn it around.”
Seconds before Tuesday’s match, McEnroe described Kyrgios on ESPN as, “headed down a black hole, and if he’s not careful he’s going to be railroaded out of the sport.” It seemed an extreme view, but the Aussie’s callowness on-court and off lent the warning weight. When his post-match press conference ended, Kyrgios started for the door when someone asked for a TV interview.
He nodded, smiled, pulled a wad of chewing gum from his mouth and handed it to a handler. She smiled and stuck the wad into her left palm. The camera light blazed, and again came a question about the Wawrinka incident. No, Kyrgios said as the room emptied around him, “I’m not embarrassed about it at all.”