It's hard to market competitive tennis as exciting to young people who don't play it. The racquet sport is genteel and prize-money driven – things that Canberra's Nick Kyrgios are decidedly not. The 25-year old is erratic, anti-authority and all cheek – part of the tension of his every match is when he might turn away from the ball to barb the opponent, umpire or crowd. For the tennis-disinterested, this is the beginning of his appeal – Kyrgios' conduct on and off the court is honest and uncensored, aligned with a younger generation brought up to mine the self for social credit online. The base thrill of his physical game is its lack of grace or professionalism. A casual viewer can spend Kyrgios' service sets gawking at the slanted speedometer behind him (regularly serving at 215 km/ph); laughing at the audacity of his between the leg lobs; losing their breath as he survives match point after match point to procure an impossible comeback. But perhaps what crowns him as a millennial and Gen Z hero the most, is his existential dislike of the sport that made him famous – he'd rather be playing basketball – and a self-professed poor work ethic.
The amount of cultural analysis written about the young tennis player and his behaviour over the last five years is staggering. But few have been so egregiously riddled with strawman arguments and galling boomer commentary as that published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald this week by veteran tennis writer Alan Attwood. Attwood's piece, All show and no respect: a night with the Nickheads (we won't link it) is a melodrama recounting his decision to walk out on Kyrgios' third round Australian Open loss to Dominic Thiem.
He begins by anecdotally generalising Kyrgios' supporters as "mostly male", terming them "Nickheads" – meant as a disapproving putdown, it ends up sounding like the best Kyrgios fandom name I've heard yet. Attwood's ire at the Nickheads is first raised by one unruly fan: "After the first point, won by Kyrgios, a bloke two seats along stood up, yelled "Come on Nick!" and clapped loudly. Then kept clapping until he was the only one making any noise. People tittered". Encouraging a sports player from the sidelines? Who else could have induced such vile toxicity, other than Kyrgios?
Attwood describes the crowd of Nickheads as "ugly and embarassing", waving Australian flags – nevermind that Kyrgios hushed the unfortunate patriotism of the "Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi" chant whenever it emerged. As if to cover for the inevitable, Attwood claims he doesn't mind all enthusiastic crowds in an ironic piece of phrasing, referring to the formal clothing of Wimbledon-style tennis: "I'm not advocating a return to all-whites".
But the piece's contentions enter the realm of genuine delusion when the writer compares Kyrgios to Donald Trump: "Just as Trump lost control, so did Kyrgios, who took his fans to peak delirium when he clinched the second set with an underarm serve". If that comparison wasn't unhinged enough, a photo of Trump addressing a crowd is helpfully inserted into the article. Yes, a tennis player of Greek-Malaysian heritage is precisely like the megalomaniac, racist billionaire and former US president.
It's telling to compare the characterisation of the crowds at John Cain Arena by Attwood, to what journalist Osman Faruqi wrote about them just days earlier for The Saturday Paper: "Young kids held up homemade signs, Australian and Greek flags were waved, beer was spilled, gasps and applause drowned out the umpire's please for silence...The common word used to describe them is "diverse", but that feels like an understatement. Yes it's diverse in terms of culture and class, but it's more than that. It actually looks like Australia."
The real problem in Attwood's piece is his belief in civility politics; that tennis should be polite, if not white. As Faruqi points out, and others before him, Kyrgios' honest expression of self as a person of colour is an affront to the tennis establishment. This phenomenon of civility being used as a method of containment for people of colour seeking social mobility is well-documented in the US; in Kyrgios' example, it is manifest in a need to preserve the (not so) hallowed etiquette of tennis.
To mask this, consciously or not, Attwood seems to throw in buzz terms and social justice clauses that don't make sense in an attempt to discredit Kyrgios' behaviour as harmful beyond tennis. But "toxicity", a baseless portrayal of a "mostly male" fanbase and the world's worst Trump comparison is an achingly cynical clutch at straws – particularly after a year in which Kyrgios became tennis' most outspoken advocate for caution in the COVID-19 pandemic and led efforts to raise money for victims of Australia's 2019/20 bushfires.
Of course, Attwood's piece isn't written to change the minds of a diverse, younger generation of fans. It's the equivalent of a dog whistle-ridden Yelp! review of a restaurant that doesn't cater to their tastes, written for other white boomers to give it a thumbs up. It's the same tired discourse about Kyrgios' "bad behaviour" that has been thrown around for half a decade. If anything, it's starting to look embarrassing for those who repeat it. Some of that discourse has evolved to accommodate the idea that Kyrgios is "maturing" – which, while well-meaning, feels like a condescending attempt to temper him into someone who is palatable for those same-old social conventions.
If anything, a younger audience will adore Kyrgios only as long as he continues to eschew stuffy tennis tradition. It's the reason many of us started watching in the first place.
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshmartjourn.
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