Wimbledon, England. All white is the dress code at Wimbledon, the oldest and most traditional of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments. So when Nick Kyrgios puts on his black hat for an on-court interview, he sends a signal.
And this is what he did on Saturday night at No. 1 Court, after his emotional, fireworks-filled, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7) win over No. 1 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. 4 seeds.
With the women’s tournament wide open ahead of the second week of Wimbledon, the potential for a men’s final featuring Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal looks more imminent with each passing day. And then there is Kyrgios, a dangerous and destructive force who has so much pure talent, but he is so temperamental and quick-tempered, and he is so attracted to and disgusted by his chosen profession that the sport can neither control him nor ignore him.
He plays when he wants to and then disappears for months, only to return to wreak havoc and make headlines.
“Wherever I go, I see full stadiums,” he said after the fight with Tsitsipas. “The media loves to write that I have a bad attitude towards sports, but this is clearly not the case.”
Kyrgios is an extremely talented Australian who is ambivalent about the rigors and demands of professional tennis. He enjoys his role as the game’s great criminal, not afraid to quarrel, spit, or scold the umpires and referees.
He teases the young workers on the court for not keeping replacement chairs with fresh towels and bananas. He breaks rackets. One ricocheted off the ground and nearly hit a ball boy in the face at a tournament in California this year. His boorish antics regularly bring in tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Then he will return to the court and make one of the most dangerous serves in the game. He hosts the sort of magical punching clinic—between the legs, right curls, backstage aces—that other players can only dream of.
He is a time bomb that fills stadiums and has hordes of young fans. He is both the sport’s worst nightmare and his ticket to dinner: hard to watch, but also hard not to watch.
When he loses, it’s always someone else’s fault. When he wins, it’s because he has overcome all sorts of forces against him – tournament directors, the media, the tennis establishment, fans who have showered him with racist abuse.
“Unrecorded. Unfiltered. Not to be missed,” @Wimbledon tweeted on Saturday night as Kyrgios, in all his brilliance and audacity, overpowered and bested Tsitsipas in three hours.
Throughout the evening, Kyrgios harassed the platform umpire, as well as tournament officials and spectators, for not violating Tsitsipas’s obligations after he angrily kicked the ball into the crowd, coming dangerously close to a direct hit on a fan on the fly. Kyrgios stated that the judge would certainly have sent him off if he had done the same. (Perhaps he is not mistaken in this.)
The almost endless complaints and interruptions confused Tsitsipas. He struggled to maintain his composure, complaining to the chair umpire that only one person on the court was interested in playing tennis while the other was turning the match into a circus. Then he took matters into his own hands and began to try to pin Kyrgios with his blows. The crowd of over 10,000 grew louder with each confrontation.
It became even more tense after Kyrgios finished off Tsitsipas in a tie-break with three unanswered blows – a signature half-volley into the open area; torn winner on the left; and a baseline shot that died on the pitch out of Tsitsipas’ reach.
The drama came to a head when Tsitsipas and Kyrgios’ press conferences turned into an abusive and insult-filled debate about decorum and who has more friends in the dressing room.
Tsitsipas, confident that Kyrgios intentionally screwed up the match – and probably flustered that Kyrgios had beaten him twice in a month – said his fellow footballers should come together and lay down the rules that would rein in Kyrgios.
“It’s constant bullying, that’s what he does,” Tsitsipas said of Kyrgios. “He mocks opponents. He was probably a bully at school himself. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like people who humiliate others. He also has good traits in his character. But when he is, he also has a very evil side, which, if exposed, can really cause a lot of harm and bad things to the people around him.
Tsitsipas said he regretted hitting the ball into the crowd, but had less regret when he hit the net and the scoreboard, earning a penalty point.
“I was aiming for the body of my opponent, but I missed very, very badly,” he said. He then added, “When I feel like other people don’t respect me and don’t respect what I’m doing on the other side of the court, it’s absolutely fine for me to act and do something about it.”
Kyrgios watched all this on TV nearby. A few minutes later, he sat down at the microphone wearing a black cap and t-shirt with the image of Dennis Rodman, a former NBA rebel, and with a wide smile. Once again, Tsitsipas created a situation in which Kyrgios could get the better of him, even giving him the rare chance to take the high road and claim he was innocent.
“He was the one who kicked the ball for me,” he said of Tsitsipas. “He was the one who hit the viewer. He kicked him out of the stadium.”
He called Tsitsipas “soft” for letting Kyrgios’ conversations with tournament officials get to him.
“We are not cut from the same fabric,” he said of Tsitsipas. “I go up against guys who are real contenders. If it affected him today, then that’s what’s holding him back, because someone can just do it and it’s going to take him out of the game like that. I just think he’s soft.”
Tsitsipas’ mother is a former professional, and his father is a tennis coach who raised his sons on the tennis court from an early age. Kyrgios is of Greek and Malay descent and his father made a living by painting houses.
“I play well in the dressing room,” Kyrgios continued. “I have many friends, just so you know. I’m actually one of my favorites. I’m ready. They don’t like him.”
Then the last dagger.
He said that he did not go out on the court to make friends, to praise his opponents for their game, and that he had no idea why he upset Tsitsipas so much that he barely shook hands with him at the end of the match.
Every time he lost, Kyrgios said, even when he was kicked out of matches, he looked his opponent in the eye and told him he was better.
“He wasn’t man enough to do it today,” he said.
The win took Kyrgios to the round of 16 where he will face American Brandon Nakashima on center court on Monday, and two wins in a possible semi-final clash with Nadal, assuming the 22-time Grand Slam champion can also keep winning. It would be the ultimate showdown between hero and villain, the perfect setting for all sorts of potential outbursts and boorishness from Kyrgios, but also, as that tweet put it, theater not to be missed.
Nadal is known as one of the true gentlemen of the game, the keeper of the unspoken rules between the players. He admires Kyrgios’ talent and questions the baggage he brings to the court and the challenges he often creates with referees, especially when his chances of winning begin to slip.
On Saturday night, after winning his own match and hearing about the scandal between Kyrgios and Tsitsipas, Nadal was philosophical when asked when the player had crossed the line and if Kyrgios had gone too far. According to him, it is a matter of conscience.
“I think everyone should go to bed with peace of mind after what you did,” Nadal said. “And if you can’t sleep well and be happy with yourself, it’s because you’ve been doing things that were probably unethical.”
How does Kyrgios sleep? Only he knows.