Box Office Kyrgios a compelling talent at Wimbledon

Fans beguiled by Australian maverick’s blend of skill and inclination towards conflict

Freak show or latter-day John McEnroe, Nick Kyrgios has polarised Wimbledon and the locker room like no other player since the American scorched Centre Court grass. History has been kind to McEnroe, but to the well-heeled All England Club the New Yorker was the son of Satan during his reign of the early 1980s.

Such was their contempt that in July 1981, breaking a 104-year tradition, the club announced that their champion had not been invited to become a member. The 22-year-old, who faced a $10,000 dollar fine and a possible suspension for his behaviour at the tournament, was the first champion in the history of the event not to be offered an honorary membership.

Fresh from his earlier match against Britain’s Paul Jubb, where he lashed out towards spectators and the umpire on several occasions Kyrgios was fined $10,000 for admitting to spitting towards a fan. “Someone just yelled out I was s**t in the crowd today,” he said before spittle flew in the direction of the heckler.

He called a line judge, who had left their chair to talk to the umpire “a snitch with no friends” and accused a fan of trying to “stir up disrespect” before issuing a warning. “That’s fine, but if I give it back to you, that’s just how it is.”

On Saturday night he brought his show back to the courts and screens. BBC cut away from Nadal slicing and dicing Italian Lorenzo Sonego to three-set oblivion to dive into the firefight in the coliseum that Kyrgios had created on number one court. The Australian has become box office. With his sleeve of tattoos, back-to-front cap, feline movement and a tennis game to die for, Kyrgios, like McEnroe, was stripping paint.

In a crazily watchable third-round match both he and Stefanos Tsitsipas received code violations. The Greek star then sent a ball hurtling into the crowd after his serve was broken for the second set with Kyrgios immediately demanding for him to be defaulted.

“He just hit a ball in the f*****g crowd, are you dumb?” he asked umpire Damien Dumusois.

Kyrgios was then accused of “threatening” Dumusois after telling the official he would be speaking about him in his post-match press conference. “I cannot believe, the amount of s**t this tournament is going to get because of you is insane,” said the 27-year-old.

“People want to see me, not you. You don’t know how to play so how about you don’t tell me how to play. I don’t care, bro … people want to see me, not you. So don’t tell me what to do.”

Commentating for the BBC, Andrew Cotter said: “He’s threatening and trying to intimidate the umpire here.”

So toxic was the mood that during play Tsitsipas twice tried to hit Kyrgios with the ball at the net as the dispute indeed carried into the post-match press conference where Tsitsipas accused the winner of being a bully.

“I’m not sure how I bullied him,” said Kyrgios. “He was the one hitting balls at me, he was the one that hit a spectator, he was the one that smacked it out of the stadium. I didn’t do anything. I was actually like — apart from me just going back and forth to the umpire for a bit — I did nothing towards Stefanos today that was disrespectful, I don’t think. I was not drilling him with balls … So, you think I could just peg balls into the crowd and not get defaulted?”

He is wilfully unconventional, the underarm serves, irreverence and shattering of the gentile tennis shibboleth have made Kyrgios the most watchable player in the world because he’s not in control.

It usually comes at a cost. But he is into the fourth round against American Brandon Nakashima and the eyes of a younger generation, who have less reverence for courtesy and tradition, are never off him.

The fans know and the broadcasters understand and the game is discovering that there must be room for the Australian’s dissonance as it always goes back to a compelling interest in, generosity towards, and empathy for, the flaws and warts. His glorious struggle is our struggles, his unpredictable, Technicolor temperament a flip side to his natural talent.

The contradictions and personal conflict of Kyrgios are something tennis has lacked. But Tsitsipas saw a bully, whereas others see flair and self-destruction. McEnroe was invited to become an All England member the following year. The game’s sensibilities withstood him. So too Kyrgios.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times