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-court interview, he’s sending a message.
And that’s what he did on Saturday night on Court 1, after his emotional and fireworks-filled victory, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 ( 7) against Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 4 seed.
As Wimbledon enters its second week, the women’s tournament is wide open and there is potential for a Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal men’s final, which seems more inevitable every day. And then there’s Kyrgios, a dangerous and disruptive force who has so much pure talent, yet is so temperamental and combustible, and so drawn to and disgusted by his chosen profession that the sport can neither control nor ignore him.
He performs when he feels like it, then disappears for months, only to return to wreak havoc and provide headline-grabbing theatre.
“Everywhere I go I see full stadiums,” he said after his battle with Tsitsipas. “The media loves to write that I’m bad for the sport but clearly not.”
Kyrgios is an extremely talented Australian who has an ambivalent relationship with the rigors and demands of professional tennis. He relishes his role as the grand outlaw of the game, unafraid to chew, spit or berate the judges and referees.
He harasses the young workers in the field for not filling the changing chairs with clean towels and bananas. He smashes rackets. One ricocheted off the ground and nearly crashed into the face of a ball boy during a tournament in California this year. His crude parades regularly earn him tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Then he’ll return to the court and fire off one of the game’s most dangerous serves. He’s putting on the kind of magic shooting clinic — shots between the legs, curling forehands, sneaky aces — that other players can only dream of. .
He is the ticking time bomb that fills stadiums and has hordes of young fans. He is both sport’s worst nightmare and its meal ticket: hard to watch but also hard not to do.
When he loses, it’s always someone else’s fault. When he wins, it’s because he’s overcome all kinds of forces against him – tournament directors, the media, the tennis establishment, the fans who hurled racial slurs at him.
“Not scripted. Unfiltered. Not to be missed,” was how the @Wimbledon Twitter feed put it on Saturday night as Kyrgios, in all his brilliance and bratitude, overpowered and outplayed Tsitsipas for three hours.
All evening, Kyrgios lashed out at the chair umpire as well as tournament referees and supervisors for not failing Tsitsipas after he angrily kicked a ball into the crowd, coming dangerously close to hitting directly a fan on the fly. Kyrgios claimed the referee would surely have sent him off if he did the same. (He may not be wrong on that one.)
Almost endless complaints and interruptions rocked Tsitsipas. He struggled to keep 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 started trying to stick Kyrgios with his shots. The crowd of over 10,000 grew louder with each confrontation.
It only got more intense after Kyrgios finished Tsitsipas in the tiebreaker with three unrecoverable shots – a signature half-volley into the open court; a ripped backhand winner; and a baseline dropshot that died on the turf just beyond Tsitsipas’ reach.
The drama came to a head as Tsitsipas and Kyrgios’ press conferences devolved into a slur-filled, insult-filled debate over decorum and who had more friends in the locker room.
Tsitsipas, certain that Kyrgios had intentionally ruined the game – and probably convinced that Kyrgios had beaten him twice in a month – said his teammates needed to come together and establish rules that would hold Kyrgios back.
“It’s constant bullying, that’s what he does,” Tsitsipas said of Kyrgios. “He harasses 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 good traits in his character. But when he – he also has a very evil side to him, which, if exposed, can really hurt and harm the people around him.
Tsitsipas said he regretted sending the ball into the crowd, but had less remorse for another he hit through the net and into the scoreboard, earning a penalty point.
“I was aiming for my opponent’s body, but I missed by a lot, a lot,” he said. Then, he added, “When I feel like other people disrespect me and don’t respect what I do on the other side of the pitch, it’s completely normal for me to to act and do something about it.”
Kyrgios was watching all of this on a nearby television. A few minutes later, he sat behind the microphone, wearing this black cap and a T-shirt with Dennis Rodman, the former NBA rebel, and a big smile. Once again, Tsitsipas had created a situation where Kyrgios could get the better of him, even allowing him the rare chance to hit the high road and pretend to be some sort of innocent.
“He was the one who hit me,” he said of Tsitsipas. “He was the one who hit a spectator. He was the one who took him out of the stadium.
He called Tsitsipas ‘sweet’ for letting Kyrgios’ conversations with tournament officials get to him.
“We are not cut from the same cloth,” he said of Tsitsipas. “I’m up against guys who are real competitors. If he’s affected by that today, then that’s what’s holding him back, because somebody can just do that and it’s going to throw him off balance like that. I just think it’s sweet.
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 painted houses for a living.
“I’m good in the locker room,” Kyrgios continued, now rolling. “I have a lot of friends, just so you know. I’m actually one of the most beloved. I’m ready. He is not loved.
Then, a last dagger.
He said he didn’t go on the pitch to make a friend, to compliment his opponents on their play, and that he had no idea what he had done to annoy Tsitsipas to the point that barely shook her hand at the end of the game.
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 the better man.
“He wasn’t man enough to do that today,” he said.
The victory put Kyrgios through to the round of 16, where he will face Brandon Nakashima of the United States on Monday, and two wins in a possible semi-final showdown on center court with Nadal, assuming the Grand Slam champion at 22 occasions can continue to win as well. It would be the ultimate hero-villain showdown, a perfect setting for all sorts of outbursts and potential Kyrgios grossness, but also, as this Twitter thread says, must-see theater.
Nadal is known for being one of the game’s true gentlemen, a guardian of the unspoken codes between players. He marveled at Kyrgios’ talent and questioned the baggage he brings to the pitch and the hardships he often creates with referees, especially when his chances of winning start to slip away.
On Saturday night, after winning his own game and hearing about the Kyrgios-Tsitsipas fracas, Nadal became a philosopher when asked when a player had crossed the line and if Kyrgios was going too far. It is, he says, a matter of conscience.
“I think everyone has to go to bed being calm with the things you’ve done,” Nadal said. “And if you can’t sleep calm and satisfied with yourself, it’s because you did things that were probably unethical.”
How does Kyrgios sleep? He alone knows.