The results in Canada were nothing short of stunning. Teenager Belinda Bencic won her first Rogers Cup in her first appearance, beating a murderer’s row of major contenders along the way. Andy Murray won his fourth title of the year, upsetting world number one Novak Djokovic after eight straight losses.
But those feats were meat-and-potatoes compared to the tensions ignited between a select few on- and off-court during the week — blindsiding the tennis landscape in big ways.
The moments recalled the Jimmy Connors-versus-John McEnroe era of colorful and character-driven tennis. They spotlighted an emergence of a different breed of player — one shaped by unfettered social media that affronted the traditional ideals of the game.
And they left in their wake uncharted tennis waters.
It all started with Nick Kyrgios.
The Aussie became headline news when he fanned the emotional flames of Stan Wawrinka with a crass comment during their second-round encounter in Montreal. Though Wawrinka was close to 100 feet away, it didn’t take long for the viral moment to reach the reigning French Open champion.
According to the Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob, an altercation began in the locker room, escalating to the point where the two players had to be separated. Twitter came alive with comments from Wawrinka and his coach Magnus Norman — along with thousands of followers. Rafael Nadal chimed in: “The world of tennis, I think we should represent and we should be an example for new generation of kids. He was wrong yesterday.”
Some took Kyrgios’ side. His mother and brother sent tweets that argued for his innocence; the former’s Twitter account was later shut down. Australia’s Davis Cup Captain Wally Masur believed the controversy was ‘blown out of proportion.’
Masur went on to say, “When I actually saw the incident, what was fairly obvious was that Nick had his back turned to Stan, he was 90 feet away, and he [Nick] mumbled it under his breath. I mean, no way was he actually being confrontational.”
The ATP took immediate action, fining Kyrgios the maximum $10,000. It later added $2,500 to the bill — for incendiary remarks he made earlier in the match — presumably about the WTA’s Donna Vekic, Wawrinka’s rumored girlfriend.
In a world of instant information and political correctness, Kyrgios issued an apology on his Facebook page. It certainly didn’t read like anything that would’ve come from the 20-year-old who seems to speak in bursts of fury aimed at anyone or anything in particular. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do.
But it didn’t end there. The next day crowds resoundingly booed as Kyrgios walked out for his match against John Isner. In the second set, he got into a shouting match with someone in the stands. Then, after he lost to the big-serving American, crowds booed his departure.
Today brought reactions from Thanasi Kokkinakis, the guy caught in the crossfire thanks to Kyrgios, throwing more fuel on the fire.
“It’s been interesting,” Kokkinakis admitted, clarifying, “It’s been a circus.”
All three rings were evident in the Aussie’s qualifying encounter with American Ryan Harrison in Cincinnati.
Fists were about to fly on court in Ohio — had not chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani intervened. The piqued emotions spun around bad line calls. They tension likely stemmed from Kokkinakis’s contained resentments toward Lahyani himself, who had chaired a testy match for Kokkinakis in Indian Wells this spring.
“I haven’t gotten much sleep on the nights of the two incidents,” Kokkinakis said. “But, luckily enough I recovered and I’m playing a tournament at the moment, something to focus on that, and I’m happy I found a way to get the win [over Harrison].”
Kokkinakis said he had ‘cleared the air’ with Wawrinka and Donna Vekic, who by now was referred to as ‘Wawrinka’s girlfriend.’ But it did not approach the pass Harrison received, after threatening Kokkinakis in their incident.
Kyrgios’s act in Montreal was not his first. But Wimbledon was. In his loss to Richard Gasquet, Kyrgios was accused of tanking after an effortless game. In an earlier-round against Diego Schwartzman, Kyrgios maintained that he was calling himself ‘dirty scum’ and not Lahyani, who believed the comment was aimed at him.
But the Aussie’s grandiose statement in press afterward accentuated his deep disdain for authority, respect and the game. “Wouldn’t bother me one bit,” Kyrgios said when asked if he feared receiving a fine for his behavior. Perhaps his union with Lleyton Hewitt will smooth the waters. Once known for his own brash behavior, Hewitt paired with the youngster just before the blowup with Wawrinka.
“He’s definitely not my coach,” Kyrgios clarified. “But he’s definitely helping me. He’s taking time from his own career and family to come here and help me. That’s really good to have that person that I can sort of ask questions and lead me in the right direction.”
With Hewitt retiring after next year’s Australian Open, time may be ripe for the legend to pass on his experience and their consequences to Kyrgios. Someone has to reign in the temperament of the youngster — or he will be booted from the game. An investigation has already been opened by the ATP, one that will look more carefully into his behavior, and make a ruling that could include a possible three-year suspension and a fine upwards of $100,000.
Sentiments such as he has a good heart, he’s young, he’s so talented and young, and he’s on a journey seem superfluous when you take a hard look at the carnage. Bringing in Donna Vekic was downright misogyny. His closest family members continue to enable him vis-a-vis confrontational Twitter messages. It sends a message that his actions have few consequence, if any.
And, yes, he can change if he wants to.
Trash talk transcends tennis: basketball, football, baseball, and cricket have their fair share of “sledges.” But we can’t just drive by a terrible car accident. We slow down and back up traffic, which irrigates drivers and provokes condemnation from authorities trying to do clear the roads.
Does tennis need Nick Kyrgios? No. But he needs tennis or he won’t master his already well-rounded game and flourishing results.
Kyrgios, Kokkinakis and Harrison — three of the many young players on tour — are a new generation raised by social media and its continual invitation to voice their opinions and share experiences. Some understand that posts can backfire. They have learned to take a step back before hitting send.
Or, at least, as Victoria Azarenka tweeted, to step away from the many microphones that circle a court.
Rod Laver, Tony Roche, and John Newcombe are few of the many Australian tennis greats. They have found their way to the International Tennis Hall of Fame through hard work on court, giving back to the game, and records that remain relevant. Will the criteria for entry in those hallowed halls shift, given what we witnessed last week and will probably witness going forward?
Everyone associated with the game has to jump in this conversation.
Players have to take an active role in mentoring, or by just being friends with the guys in the locker room. They have to unplug the headphones and talk with each other, figuring the best way forward.
It will take time.
The ATP and WTA have to write clear and concise policy about what behaviors will and will not be tolerated. And, the chair umpires have to implement those policies not pick the ones they think are necessary or won’t disrupt a match or player. Playing favorites or fearing retribution from players and tournament officials has to be set aside, which will be difficult considering the number of people, and groups, that have to have their satisfaction quotas met.
And, no, tennis does not need characters like Connors or McEnroe. And yet that doesn’t mean the game should remain rigid. It should sound a horn for civility. Tennis is not a contact sport, but it thrives in an ever-increasing environment of violence, intolerance, and the drive to be right that spills on the courts.
In Bencic’s victory over Halep yesterday, Ivan, her father and coach, suggested to his rattled daughter during the second set changeover when all hope of victory seemed to be evaporating, to pay attention to her game and never mind what was going on across the net.
His message has wide appeal, considering what we’ve witnessed and are experiencing so far this year in tennis.
Kyrgios will have his opportune moment to heed this advice. He plays Richard Gasquet first round in Cincinnati.