Australian tennis’ newest star Nick Kyrgios finds himself as modern tennis’ referendum on the note that Birdman’s protagonist Riggan has on his dressing room mirror: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
Those who are fond of Kyrgios – either as a person, or at the very least as a “breath of fresh air” – take a Swiftian haters-gonna-hate stance, wherein critics of on- and off-court style and persona are irrelevant in an individual sport where results are the only things that matter. It’s a stance in which one of tennis’ great purities comes to life: that all a player need do to gain entry into the world’s biggest tournaments is to earn a ranking that’s high enough. No proving one’s self to scouts, seeking the approval of judges, or taking psychological tests to be drafted onto a team. You just have to be able to play.
Those on the other side, criticising Kyrgios for his personality regardless of on-court success, instead play the role of Birdman’s Tabitha, the theatre critic sitting alone in the corner of a bar, pouring scorn on an as-yet unseen play because it stars a movie idol rather than a theatre actor: “After the opening tomorrow I’m gonna turn in the worst review anyone has ever read and I’m gonna close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children.”
For the reputation of a polarising tennis player evokes Birdman at its most existential. What is the point of being one of the best players in the world if the people watching don’t like you? Or should the question instead be who cares about what people think of you if you’re one of the best players in the world? Is the pursuit of excellence purely for its own sake, or is it for the sake of entertaining and earning the appreciation of others?
Fred Stolle, a commentator and ex-player safely ensconced as one of the bastions of Australian tennis, provided perhaps the most telling – and most hilarious – criticism of Kyrgios’ persona during the Australian Open: “Asked whether Kyrgios could learn from Lleyton Hewitt, whose fierce on-court behavior came under scrutiny early in his career, Stolle said: ‘Yeah, but Lleyton never smashed racquets. Lleyton got annoyed and abused people but he never, he never broke racquets.”
Stolle’s comment was an imbecilic version of the insta-classic Birdman quote from Edward Norton’s character Mike Shiner: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” It’s as if Stolle’s saying, “Win a prestigious tournament, Nick, and we’ll forgive you all of your previous ills. Once Lleyton won prestigious events and became one of us, his behaviour became irrelevant. Until then, you’re nothing.”
For this is Australian tennis, where Lavers, Courts, Newcombes and Rosewalls have blazed trails. And where Philippoussis is forever a disappointment. A wasted talent. A failure. We expect more from our freakish athletes when tennis is their sport of choice. Patty Mills was handed the keys to the country when he was the eighth best player on a successful NBA team, but Scud failed to live up to his potential despite once being the eighth best player in the world. Australia now holds the same expectations over Kyrgios as it once did of Philippoussis – two Slam finals and a top ten ranking won’t be enough to avoid being an eternal disappointment to the country’s sporting critics.
Actually, the modern requirement for entry into Australian sporting royalty is winning two Slams. Pat Rafter won two and he has an arena named after him. Meanwhile, Sam Stosur is the only Aussie woman to have won a Slam since Goolagong in 1980, and yet every summer Sam’s trotted out as fodder for the sportspages. For can’t you see? She’s a failure who needs serious psychological help.
Of course, as Birdman’s Riggin shouts at his critic, “That’s a label. That’s all labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons… You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything!”
For the moment, as we viewers of tennis’ play-within-a-play wait to see exactly how it’ll all end up, we know that Kyrgios cares about some labels. When he rocked up to the entrance to Rod Laver Arena for his quarter-final, he asked court announcer Craig Willis to introduce him to the crowd as “The Wonder from Down Under.”
Oh for the unexpected virtue of ignorance.