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 wears a black hat for his on-field interview, he sends a message.
And he did so on Saturday night on the No. 1 court, after his emotional, fireworks-filled, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7) victory over Greece’s No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas. seed.
As Wimbledon enters its second week, the women’s tournament is wide open and there is the potential for a men’s final from Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, which seems more inevitable every day. And then there’s Kyrgios, a dangerous and disruptive force who has so much pure talent, but is so temperamental and flammable, and so drawn to and disgusted by his chosen profession that the sport cannot control or ignore him.
He plays whenever he feels like it, then disappears for months, then returns to wreak havoc and deliver headline-grabbing theater.
“Everywhere I go I see full stadiums,” he said after his fight with Tsitsipas. “The media likes to write that I am bad for the sport, but clearly not.”
Kyrgios is a hugely talented Australian who has an ambivalent relationship with the rigors and demands of professional tennis. He enjoys his role as the great bandit of the game, unafraid to chew, spit at judges and umpires, or scold them.
He teases the young workers in the field for not filling the changing chairs with clean towels and bananas. He smashes rackets. One bounced off the ground and nearly crashed into the face of a ball boy during a tournament in California this year. His crass displays regularly earn tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Then he will return to the field and fire one of the most dangerous serves in the game. He gives the kind of magical shotmaking clinic – shots between the legs, curling forehands, backstabbing aces – that other players can only dream of.
He is the ticking time bomb that packs stadiums and has hordes of young fans. He’s both the sport’s worst nightmare and its meal voucher: hard to watch, but also hard not to.
If he loses, it’s always someone else’s fault. If he wins, it’s because he’s overcome all kinds of forces against him – tournament directors, the news media, the tennis establishment, fans who have hurled racist remarks at him.
“Unwritten. Unfiltered. Unmissable,” said @Wimbledon’s Twitter feed on Saturday night when Kyrgios, in all his brilliance and brattiness, overpowered and surpassed Tsitsipas for three hours.
Throughout the evening, Kyrgios went after the chair umpire, as well as the tournament’s umpires and supervisors for failing to put Tsitsipas in default after he angrily sent a ball into the crowd, bringing him dangerously close to hitting the ball directly. a fan. Kyrgios claimed the referee would certainly have sent him off if he had done the same. (Maybe he’s not wrong about that.)
The almost endless complaints and interruptions rattled Tsitsipas. Struggling to keep his composure, he complained to the chair umpire that only one person on the field was interested in tennis, while the other turned the match into a circus. Then he took matters into his own hands and began pinning Kyrgios with his shots. The crowd of more than 10,000 grew louder with each confrontation.
Things only intensified after Kyrgios Tsitsipas closed the tiebreak with three irreversible shots – a signature half volley on the open field; a ripped, backhand winner; and a drop shot from baseline that died on the turf just outside Tsitsipas’ reach.
The drama reached a climax when Tsitsipas and Kyrgios’ press conferences turned into a swearing, insulting debate over decorum and who had more friends in the locker room.
Tsitsipas, certain that Kyrgios had deliberately messed up the match – and probably stupefied that Kyrgios had beaten him twice in a month – said his teammates should come together and set rules that would keep Kyrgios in check.
“It’s constant bullying, that’s what he does,” Tsitsipas said of Kyrgios. “He bullies the opponents. He was probably a bully himself at school. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like people who put other people down. He also has some good qualities in his character. But if he – he also has a very bad side about him, which if it’s exposed, it can really do a lot of harm and bad to the people around him.”
Tsitsipas said he regretted hitting the ball into the crowd, but had less remorse for another one he hit over the net and into the scoreboard, earning him a penalty point.
“I was aiming for my opponent’s body, but I missed a lot, a lot,” he said. Then he added: “If 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 normal on my part to act and do something about it.”
Kyrgios watched all this on a nearby television. A few minutes later, he sat down behind the microphone, wearing that black cap and a T-shirt with Dennis Rodman, the former NBA rebel, and a big grin. Again, Tsitsipas had created a situation where Kyrgios could get the better of him, even giving him the rare chance to take the main road and claim to be some kind of innocent.
“He was the one who hit balls at me,” he said of Tsitsipas. “He was the one who touched a spectator. He was the one who knocked him out of the stadium.”
He called Tsitsipas “soft” for letting Kyrgios’ conversations with tournament officials sink in.
“We are not cut from the same cloth,” he said of Tsitsipas. “I am up against guys who are real competitors. If he’s affected by that today that’s what’s holding him back because someone just can and that’s going to throw him off his game. I just like it soft.”
Tsitsipas’ mother is a former pro and his father is a tennis coach who raised his sons on the tennis court from an early age. Kyrgios is of Greek and Malaysian descent, and his father painted houses for a living.
“I’m good in the locker room,” continued Kyrgios, who was now rolling. “I have a lot of friends, just to let you know. I’m actually one of the most loved. I’m ready. He is not loved.”
Then one last dagger.
He said he hadn’t gone to the field to make a friend, to compliment his opponents on their game, and that he had no idea what he had done to upset Tsitsipas so much that at the end of the match barely shook his hand.
Every time he lost, Kyrgios said, even when he has been kicked out of matches, he has looked his opponent in the eye and said he was the better man.
“He wasn’t man enough to do that today,” he said.
The win put Kyrgios into the round of 16, where he faces Brandon Nakashima of the United States on Monday, and two wins from a potential Center Court semifinal showdown with Nadal, assuming the 22-time Grand Slam star champion can keep winning as well. It would be the ultimate showdown between hero and villain, a perfect setting for all sorts of possible Kyrgios explosions and rudeness, but also, as that Twitter feed put it, indispensable theater.
Nadal is known as one of the true lords of the game, a guardian of the unspoken codes between players. He has marveled at Kyrgios’ talent and questioned the baggage he brings to the pitch and the trials he often creates with umpires, especially when his chances of winning start to slip away.
On Saturday night, after winning his own match and learning about the Kyrgios-Tsitsipas fracas, Nadal became philosophical when asked when a player crossed the line and if Kyrgios went too far. It is, he said, a matter of conscience.
“I think everyone should go to bed being calm about the things you’ve done,” Nadal said. “And if you can’t sleep peacefully and be happy with yourself, it’s because you’ve done things that probably weren’t ethical.”
How does Kyrgios sleep? Only he knows.