Nick Kyrgios is right, of course. He has completed 12 years of education. From this lofty mount, our one-eyed Australian king in the land of the tennis-blinded feels eminently qualified to issue character assessments. Rafael Nadal? Sore loser. Novak Djokovic? Cringeworthily obsessed with being liked. Andy Murray? Good guy with an "embarrassing" record in the big matches. Long-time world No.11 Fernando Verdasco? Most arrogant guy, like, ever.
Kyrgios’s podcast interview this week with tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg is a classic of the genre. His boast of a year 12 education stems from the day he beat Nadal and was called ‘uneducated’ by Nadal’s Uncle Toni. Kyrgios’s analysis? "I'm like, 'Bra, I did 12 years at school, you idiot. I'm very educated. I understand that you're upset I beat your family again'."
I have a soft spot for Kyrgios. He plays tennis very much like a normal person. He gets easily bored. He goes for millionaire shots rather than playing the percentages. Sometimes they come off, so he gets a name for being a brilliant if wayward talent (ie, psychologically more like a normal person than a professional sportsman). He hits underarm serves and drops his bundle when things get tough. What could be more, like, relatable? Crazy.
Many people have a soft spot for Kyrgios because of his candour. If he were running for election this weekend, his slogan might be that he says what everyone else is thinking, only that would involve him in a copyright dispute with some twisted sister or other. Those who admire Kyrgios tend to admire the values they imbue him with: he is anti-establishment, non-conformist, anti-boring, a talisman for The Young and those who consider themselves The Young.
This soft spot usually grows in periods of Kyrgios silence. You like what you think he stands for. But then he opens his mouth, and the experience is akin to that of those western communists who flocked to Russia in the 1930s to witness the people’s paradise, only to find themselves flung into prison. Your heroes might not be quite what you have dreamt them to be, and nor are they symbolic fighters in your own personal battles. They might just be assholes.
Being an educated person, Kyrgios sees no need to mince his words. Words like "hilarious", which covers everything from his notorious sledge of Stanislav Wawrinka to his plan to mock Djokovic’s victory celebration next time he beats him. Many things he sees are "crazy", or, if not "crazy", then "scary". He has a fondness for year-12 verbs such as "vex". Nadal gets him vexed, Djokovic vexes him very much, and Verdasco vexes him so much he drives him nuts. Kyrgios can also take his vocab into polysyllabic territory too, predicting that Djokovic, in the manner of a freeway crossing a minor street, will "overpass" Roger Federer’s grand slam record.
It is on Djokovic that Kyrgios is most right, or at least most right-on. He "can’t stand him". Kyrgios says, "I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked. He just wants to be like Roger … Every time he does the [post-match] celebration it just kills me". Given Djokovic’s achievements, that’s a lot of being killed for poor Kyrgios to have to suffer in one lifetime.
Spectators can endure Djokovic selectively, or not at all, but Kyrgios, being a tennis player, has to live with it. But he is no mere tennis player. He’s superior to that. He’s done 12 years of school and he doesn’t practice very hard. He’s beaten Djokovic and so, cop this Novak, "If you can't beat me, you're not the greatest of all time. Because if you like look at my day-to-day routine and how much I train and how much I put in, it's zero compared to him". So here’s the main point: Kyrgios, who loses quite frequently, never really loses, because he never really tries. (Normal person, again.) All those tennis players who act superior to him because they win more, well, they’re just people who train like tennis is their whole world and "hit a ball over the net". True quality derives instead from hitting the ball into the net, over the baseline, or out of the stadium. And being educated.
What vexes the educated man most of all is tennis players who lack humility, who say, "I'm here, I'm so cool, I'm unbelievable because I hit a ball over the net. Do this for me, do this for me, I won't say hello to you, I'm too important". Sorry, this is not the man in the mirror but the extremely vexing Verdasco.
"Verdasco drives me nuts, man. That guy … I don't even want to talk about it," Kyrgios says, before talking about it at length. "It gets me so vexed, I'm like angry now that I just hear that name. He's the most arrogant person ever. He doesn't say hello, he thinks he's so good, he thinks he's God's gift. Dude, your backhand's pretty average and let's be honest, you hit a ball over a net."
A tactical error here, for Kyrgios has let opponents in on a weakness. Don't engage him in long rallies or move him around the baseline until he starts wishing he was playing basketball. Instead, repeat the word "Verdasco" and watch Nick get angry. Crazy. Hilarious.
As another tennis mouth once said: Serious? Seriously, having been over Kyrgios’s podcast interview, I think he makes a number of fair points, and with better wording, they could have carried some weight. About the tennis world, he does say what many normal people would think. And good on him for that. Trouble is, his words too often let him down and things come out in an imprecise and inarticulate way, and when he is being thoughtful, his words make him look spiteful. If he had better words, he could say so much more. Maybe he shouldn't have stopped at year 12.
As ever, Kyrgios produces a dilemma for Australian sports followers, who tend to go weak-kneed for winners. I'm confident he will win something major one day, if he can restrain himself from throwing tantrums and chairs (normal person vexations). Tennis-wise, he's coming into his prime at the right moment. Kyrgios’s loyal fans are entitled to enjoy that day. He has his hardened critics, at the other end of the spectrum, who will never forgive him. And then there is the indifferent man in the Australian street, who will boo Kyrgios when others are booing him, but then jump on the bandwagon when he wins Wimbledon. Very, very vexing.
Meanwhile, in another universe, on a quieter court, Australia's best tennis player simply plugs away quietly, says nothing much, gets on with the job of excellence, plays the percentages. But Ash Barty doesn't inflame the passions like this guy. Her tennis talks for her. She's merely a person who hits a ball over the net.