PETER DAY. Kyrgios: the anti-hero

Like the rest of us, Nick needs time: time to mature; time to know himself; and time to sort out the wheat from the chaff – as regards the latter, I think he’s already worked out that the media is mostly full of chaff… and don’t the media hate it, love it, know it, resent it, milk it.  

“What’s he doing?” his team mates and onlookers exclaimed with puzzlement; “This is the World Cup, for god’s sake… what’s he doing?”

On 18 March, 2003 Australian wicket-keeper batsman, Adam Gilchrist, did something you are not supposed to in cricket: he walked. It was during the semi-final of the World Cup in South Africa and Australia was taking on arch rival Sri Lanka.

This is how Gilchrist described the moment in his autobiography, Walking to Victory:

I was going well on 22 off 19 balls, seeing it like a football, when [Aravinda de Silva] came in for the second ball of his first over. He pitched it up and I went for an aggressive sweep… I got a thick, loud bottom edge. It bounced off my pad and I had no idea where it went.

Catch it! Catch it! I heard. I stood and turned to see that [Kumar] Sangakkara had it. I knew I was done. It was so obvious.

Then, to see the umpire shaking his head, meaning, ‘Not out’, gave me the strangest feeling… The voice in my head was emphatic: ‘Go. Walk’… And I did.

It was a really weird sensation to go against the grain of what ninety-nine per cent of cricketers do… and what we’ve been doing for our whole careers.

I was concerned my walking might have embarrassed umpire Rudi Koertzen by going against his call, so when we took the field I made eye contact with him at square leg just before the first ball was bowled. He nodded his head and sort of clapped his hands. That made me feel a bit better.

While not all approved of Gilchrist’s ‘walking’, notably, a lot of his peers; his moral courage inspired many. It was a moment of rare transcendence: a moment in which a professional athlete became a point of reference, allowing the spirit of fairness and humility to override the ‘win at all costs’ narrative that pervades elite sport.

As a society, we have a collective appetite for moral leadership, for someone to look up to and inspire us – just like Gilchrist. This is a laudable thing, but needs to be tempered by common sense and fairness. After all, sporting fame not only affords our champions great privileges and opportunities, it also imposes upon them a significant burden because, along with highlighting their abilities and successes, fame spotlights their frailties and failures as well – and very publicly: just ask Nick Kyrgios.

Indeed, I found it genuinely sad watching yet another one of Kyrgios’s ‘office’ meltdowns at the Australian Open the other night because, among other things, I reckon he is an inherently decent and intelligent young man; if a bit of an anti-hero in this era of ‘Saints’ Roger and Rafa.

While many might say I’m clutching at straws here, amidst the on court turmoil and tension, I noticed something that explains why so many of Kyrgios’s playing peers, unlike the hyper-critical commentariat and social media, speak so well of him.

Not only after the devastation of match point was he gracious to his victor, Andreas Seppi, by taking the time to embrace him at the net – more often than not such exchanges feature a perfunctory handshake at best; but as he walked off the arena he warmly tapped Seppi on the shoulder in further acknowledgment of a match well played. I’ve never seen a tennis player do that before.

Further, he regularly compliments his opponents during points: “too good; well played; good serve.” There is bigness to him.

Sure, he needs a good kick-up the backside every now and then from those who care, but the lynch mob mentality that prevails also needs to be called out and put in its place.

Nick is no Roger, nor is he a Rafa; but compared to the vast majority of his peers he is no Robinson Crusoe either: think a young, obnoxious Lleyton Hewitt; or a sulking, box abusing Andy Murray; or a combustible, bad tempered Novak Djokovic; or a racket busting Marcos Baghdatis; not to mention that ancient king of on court misery and tantrums, John McEnroe.

Like the rest of us, Nick needs time: time to mature; time to know himself; and time to sort out the wheat from the chaff – as regards the latter, I think he’s already worked out that the media is mostly full of chaff… and don’t the media hate it, love it, know it, resent it, milk it.

Perhaps, deep down, he’s also worked out that the tennis circuit itself is also full of chaff: a generally superficial, billion dollar industry that commodifies players as products to market and sell.

As hard as it is to witness, I reckon Nick’s vulnerability and naked honesty are teaching us how not to play the sterile, stage managed game of elite sport and culture – one that Roger and Rafa seem far more adept at playing.

And while it makes for uncomfortable viewing, there’s nothing like an anti-hero to reveal the ugly underbelly of a pretty product.

If, in four years’ time, however, these meltdowns persist, then we’ll need to re-assess.

For now, “Go mate!” May love and time allow your inner talents to match your outer ones.

Peter Day is a Catholic Priest based in Canberra.

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