Don’t encourage them
Midway through the U.S. Open, the level of tennis was brilliant, at turns violent and clever as Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev battled, hammer and tongs, in their fourth-round U.S. Open match. They needed 24 points just to get through an intense first-set tiebreaker. Riveting theater.
The question was whether anyone among the sellout crowd, going bonkers in Arthur Ashe Stadium, experienced any pause in rooting for either player. Dazzling athleticism aside, Kyrgios, a 27-year-old Australian, once again was reinforcing his reputation as the sport’s premier miscreant — cursing, hurling his racket, snarling at the chair umpire and even his own support team. And Medvedev, 26, was borderline persona non grata, competing unaffiliated because of tennis officials’ decision that, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, no Russian could compete under his national flag.
Several Ukrainian players have argued that Medvedev and other Russian and Belarussian opponents should have been banned altogether — as they were at this year’s Wimbledon — though it certainly could be argued that Medvedev can’t be held personally responsible for the murderous policies of Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev, last year’s Open champion, did make a poor early impression on Open crowds in 2019 by snatching a towel from a ballboy, displaying a middle finger in response to fans’ booing and being fined for verbal and equipment abuse. At the time, he confessed to having decided long ago to break the occasional racket because he believed spectators “think it’s cool.”
Amid the tumult this time, though, it was Kyrgios who was in full-scoundrel mode, as is his habit. In his brief professional career, he has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars — for racket abuse, audible obscenities, disrespect of chair umpires, tanking matches, sniping at ballpersons, throwing a chair on court, declaring the men’s tour officials to be corrupt, spitting at a fan. (Off court, he also has been charged with assault of a former girlfriend.)
During a changeover at a match seven years ago, Kyrgios casually informed his opponent (“Sorry to tell you that, mate”) that another player was having sex with that opponent’s romantic partner. The comment was picked up by the on-court microphone.
Greece’s Stephanos Tsitsipas, whom Kyrgios taunted during their match at this year’s Wimbledon, has called Kyrgios’ game “an incessant act of bullying his opponent.” Former Australian star Pat Cash has accused Kyrgios of “cheating, manipulation and abuse.” John McEnroe, long ago christened “Super brat” by British tabloids for his irascible tirades in the 1970s and ’80s, recently was quoted by The Guardian, “Whenever I watch Kyrgios play and do some stunts, I think, ‘Did I, too? Was I that bad?’”
So, Kyrgios vs. Medvedev: Two guys difficult to root for? Dutch philosophy professor Alfred Archer, in his 2021 academic paper “Fans, Crimes and Misdemeanors,” considered whether it is “permissible to be a fan of an artist or a sports team that has behaved immorally.” Archer argued that there are three ethical reasons to abandon such fandom — because fans’ backing supports the bad behavior, results in a widespread failure to perceive the star’s faults and protects the interests of the star.
But there long has been a rationalization that, in an individual sport such as tennis, spectators yearn for “showmanship” and therefore accept — even are drawn to — outrageous deeds as part of the show. (Though Serena Williams was guilty of a handful of crude eruptions and racket mistreatment during her long career, this historically has been a male issue.)
McEnroe, still a popular figure 30 years after his competitive retirement, was a crazed perfectionist who acted out his frustrations. He and another bellicose past champion, Jimmy Connors — who carried a large chip on his shoulder against a persecuting world — were widely embraced for their “personality.”
And the U.S. Open, which introduced night matches to the major-tournament rotation in 1975, long ago created a howling-at-the-moon chaos that raises the temperature of both fans and players. It was under the lights that the spectators, Medvedev and (especially) Kyrgios threw all restraint to the winds this week.
Kyrgios won, then faced another Russian, Karen Khachanov, in a lower-temperature quarterfinal. Who to root for there? Kyrgios lost that one, but not before flinging three more rackets, slapping a TV camera with his hand and throwing a drink.