Nick Kyrgios, 20-year-old Australian tennis player, beat this year’s French Open champ, 30-year-old Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, in an early round in the Canada Open, more formally known as the Rogers Cup and, bilingual correctness oblige, the Coupe Rogers. The men’s competition takes place in Montreal, the women’s in Toronto, but they alternate year by year. This may be on instructions from the meddlesome federal government in Ottawa, which is mindful of spreading the wealth — the sports-tourism wealth — between the neighboring provinces of Ontario (Toronto) and Quebec (Montreal.)
The Canadian Open enjoys Masters 1000 status (ATP, men’s tour) and Premier 5 (WTA, women). It is a significant event for anyone who follows tennis. The No. 1 seeds at the tournaments were Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, both of whom are having sensational seasons and will doubtless be the No 1 seeds at the U.S. Open, which begins August 31.
So far, so good, the tennis world and the sports world are focused on this great tournament in two Canadian cities. However, midway through the event, it is reported that Nick Kyrgios insulted Wawrinka during their match, by impugning the honor of the young lady the Swiss star is, reportedly, dating. Not a nice thing to bring up during a match and particularly nasty with regard to the young lady. Kyrgios’s comments about sex and promiscuity were picked up by a microphone and immediately broadcast widely.
Now, in Greece, if you said in public someone’s sister, or girl friend, or any other woman is, essentially, a — well, you know — you might find yourself in some trouble with the lady’s brothers or any other keepers of the family honor.
And not just in Greece, come to think of it. Greece comes to mind because, as it happens, young Kyrgios is of Greek background. You recall from the Michael Cacoyannis film, Zorba the Greek, how they feel about these things; the point being that the young man was going well beyond ordinary trash talk, which in any case is frowned upon in tennis. It is not that tennis players are sissies compared to, say, basketball players, but sports develop their peculiar traditions, etiquettes, and formalities, and it just happens that what might seem ordinary enough in basketball does not go over well in tennis. In fact, the governing bodies of the sport have specific rules regarding exactly this sort of thing and penalties for violators.
Wawrinka, aware of this, immediately after the match stated he expected the rules to kick in. There was, consequently, a big brouhaha that dominated the coverage of the Rogers Cup for several days, even as a quite interesting tournament was taking place. Notably, Andy Murray was playing irreproachable tennis and advancing solidly after doing very poorly in the previous week’s Citi Open in Washington, D.C., another pre-U.S. Open event. And an 18-year old from, as it happens, Switzerland, Belinda Bencic, was tearing through the women’s draw.
Interestingly, the Kyrgios matter was covered with practically no reference to something that had occurred only weeks earlier at Wimbledon. There, Kyrgios behaved with the rudeness and boorishness that he evidently likes to project, and the Australian tennis legend-in-her-own-time Dawn Fraser, Olympian swimming champion (Gold medalist at Melbourne, Rome, and Tokyo, 1956-1960-1964, among many other trophies) and mainstay of her country’s sports establishment, called on him and others young Australian tennis rowdies to clean up their act. Seeing as how they happen to all be children of immigrants, she let slip that if they did not like Australia enough to care for its reputation, they could go back where their folks came from.
Well, the notion is debatable. After all, Nick Kyrgios, like others who have been in this kind of hot water, is Australia born and educated. But Kyrgios and his fans launched a the-lady-is-a-racist campaign. This seems a bit overdrawn. She expressed patriotic sentiments in accents that might sound mildly nativist, but whatever you think of nativism, you cannot equate it with racism and you cannot claim you heard Miss Fraser express herself in racist rhetoric and claim you know the English language.
No dice: these days appealing to plain common sense aggravates your case, and a personage named Tim Soutphommasane, who is the director of a Soviet-style bureau called the Australia Anti-Discrimination Commission, jumped into the fray. One supposes it would be playing right into the hands of thought police busybodies to ask when it became normal for individuals with names like Soutphommasane and Kyrgios to lecture a lady named Dawn Fraser on the plain meaning of English words, and it may well be a stupid question with connotations of bigotry; at any rate, she did not raise it and, aged 77, perhaps did not feel like carrying on with the kinds of sanctimonious stoneheads who hurl accusations of racism around as soon as their feelings are scratched.
The lady apologized. However, it is difficult not to see in this shabby treatment of a great figure of Australian sports anything other than a wink of encouragement to young athletes who, her point precisely, really do not have any sense of the responsibilities that, like them or not, come with success.
It is, also, difficult not to feel that the morphing of the Fraser affair into the Kyrgios affair was predictable. Had Fraser not been so roundly scolded, maybe the young man would have perhaps not learned anything but at least thought it prudent to watch his manners a little.
He probably could not see why his insult to a professional colleague and his even deeper cruelty to a young lady (19 years old) could elicit some of the same indignation that he so easily assumed people felt about “racist” words directed at him. The sports establishment and media generally viewed the incident the way Wawrinka did, and Kyrgios was given the heaviest fine permitted under the rules ($10,000; he has earned about a million and a half so far this year).
Kyrgios apologized — all these public apologies seem to be part of an unending ritual, with no consequences whatsoever on people’s souls. What he said to Wawrinka was “unacceptable on several levels,” he said. Was this supposed to mean that it was acceptable at some levels? Notably the level of the harm done the young lady? Kiss and tell and all that sort of thing? This caused some anguish to Martina Navratilova, one of the legends-in-her-own-time of tennis and a power in the WTA. She promptly demanded a further investigation and suggested Kyrgios might merit a three-year suspension. As Mr. Pleszczynski observed, you do not grow up in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia and become a softie.
She has a point, though, and she might consider it a little further: no one thus far, unless in the marginal corners of the Australian press, has had the decency to mention that maybe Miss Fraser deserves an apology too. After all, she was vilified for warning that bad behavior unchecked will simply encourage worse behavior, including the kind of crude verbal rape that Nick Kyrgios and his friends, by all evidence, consider acceptable and cool.
Kyrgios lost in the next round to John Isner, from whom, if he wanted, he could take some lessons in manners, not that it is the American’s job to give them. Murray kept going, met Djokovic in the finals and beat him for the first time since the 2012 U.S. Open final. The women’s draw, played out in Toronto, saw Belinda Bencic spin and hit and serve her way to victory, past some of the great names of the contemporary ladies’ game, including Serena Williams in the semis. The show must go on.