It was Nick Kyrgios’ third-round opponent at Wimbledon, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who deliberately hit a ball into a crowd, deliberately hit a ball into a scoreboard, and admitted to trying to deliberately hit Kyrgios himself. But it was Kyrgios the headlines declared a bully.
It’s a sign of how toxic the conversation around the Australian has become that even when he’s playing the best tennis of his career and was objectively the target of bad on-court behaviour, rather than the antagonist, he still emerges as the villain. The worst that could be said of Kyrgios in the bruising battle against the No.4 seed is that he used mind games to try to psych out his opponent. It worked, and Tsitsipas – who had shown steely resolve at the start of the match – crumbled mentally, lost his temper and was outclassed, losing in four sets.
Afterwards, Tsitsipas was bitter. He criticised Kyrgios’ “attitude”, saying he would’ve refused to shake hands if he could have, labelled Kyrgios as “evil” and claimed he was “probably a bully at school”.
His comments were unbecoming, but perhaps not surprising coming from a player who had descended into mindless fury on the court and just been knocked out of the tournament. What was surprising was how little pushback against Tsitsipas’ comments there had been from journalists.
There was no follow-up to Tsitsipas’ admission he had deliberately tried to smash a ball into Kyrgios’ body. There was no fact-check on his assertion Kyrgios had been a “bully”. His claims that he had been forced to send balls flying into the crowd and scoreboard because of the “environment” created by Kyrgios were reported without challenge or criticism.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. As Kyrgios himself points out, the media has rarely treated him as anything other than a caricature. In some ways, it makes perfect sense that even during a year where he has already won a doubles Grand Slam in Melbourne and is playing the best and most compelling tennis of his career at Wimbledon, while experiencing racism on court and absurd accusations from opponents like Tsitsipas, he’s still portrayed as the bad guy. It’s the inevitable consequence of nearly a decade of sometimes legitimate but often completely disproportionate coverage of Kyrgios.
The root of much of the criticism the 27-year-old has faced throughout his career stems from a sense of entitlement. Not from Kyrgios, but from the rest of us – the media, the tennis community and the fans. It’s a problem that runs across sports. Because they play for paying crowds and TV audiences, and because they earn enormous sums of money, we think that star athletes owe us something – whether that’s respect, humility or entertainment. It’s why our most lauded sports stars are traditionally those who can be described as “humble”.
But it’s not a coincidence that those we consider the most humble and respectful are those that stick close to the role society has ordained for them. It’s when they step out of that role that we turn on them.