Nick Kyrgios plays the villain perfectly, but deep down he just wants to be loved

·5 min read

In the mid-90s, when the internet was all prairie-land as far as you could see, there was a genuine feeling this new frontier was a force for enlightenment. Here was a space where the shared human essence could coalesce and commune, a pure shore on which the future would be crafted by gentle, unhurried humans with bulbous green Apple Macintoshes, concerned only with upcycling blogs and really cool typefaces and artisan bagel houses in Prague.

The reality has of course been a little different. It turns out our shared human essence isn’t a mild dove-like thing, but is instead an ambient swamp of fury, inanity and throbbing human brain gristle. The soundtrack to that collective consciousness is not the music of the spheres but an endless spawn of enraged avatars saying things like “try crypto now bro” and “wake up sheeple”, a billion voices shouting into the void about grammar and football and celebrities, all of it preserved in the digital eternity like toxic microplastics. So apologies, The Future. It seems we may have blown it.

Related: Kyrgios sends ‘reminder to put you in your place’ after setting up Tsitsipas tie

This is a roundabout way of getting on to Nick Kyrgios, who plays in the third round at Wimbledon against Stefanos Tsitsipas on Saturday, and who has already been on various levels the most intriguing figure of the opening week.

On Tuesday Kyrgios grizzled his way past Paul Jubb, then dished up one of the most entertaining press conferences of the sporting year. On Thursday he was fined £8,000 for on court dick‑housery, but only after a thrillingly pure straight‑sets win against Filip Krajinovic. In between Kyrgios has been hoist as the embodiment of all that is graceless and wrong, and enshrined once again as that essential figure, The Bad Boy Of Tennis.

Is any of this real? On court Kyrgios may be a living, breathing code violation, but in the flesh he’s charming, bright, even quite reflective. The fact is Wimbledon, in its current recessionary mode, really could do with him going deep in this draw, and not just because he is such a vividly talented player. Tsitsipas will be a major hurdle. Get through the next round, get past (probably) Alex de Minaur in the quarters and there’s a hypothetical semi-final shot at Rafael Nadal, in many ways the perfect match-up: nice, orderly Rafa against the gobshite Aussie who can’t stop blurting stuff out. This is the other thing about Kyrgios. He seems, always, to be trying to tell us something. But what exactly?

A tattoo on Nick Kyrgios’s leg gives an insight into his personality.
A tattoo on Nick Kyrgios’s leg gives an insight into his personality. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Tennis loves to fixate on its bad boys and bad girls. But then this is the most mannered of sports, a place where fines are imposed for what are essentially social faux pas, for insufficiently ritualised behaviour, for wearing the wrong thing or shouting too loudly. Looking down that rap sheet, nothing Kyrgios has done seems particularly harmful in the real world. In 2018 he was fined at Queen’s for “miming masturbation with his water bottle”. Another time he refused to carry on playing until somebody brought him a plain white towel not a branded one. He blamed his Laver Cup defeat by Roger Federer on being distracted by “a really hot chick in the crowd”.

People have done worse in tennis. Tim Henman smashed a ball into a ball girl’s head. Virginia Wade strangled a stoat during a changeover at Beckenham. Jeremy Bates took a derringer pistol on court, escaping a fine because he didn’t technically brandish it, but famously using the phrase “who’s the big man now” in his post-match interview with Dan Maskell. Actually only one of these is true, the Henman one. And Kyrgios did spit on court and harangue a line judge and remains laughably devoid of self-awareness when he bemoans a lack of “respect”.

But it is also here that Kyrgios is on to something, oddly state-of-the-art in his fraught interactions with the crowd and the angry digital mob. He is right to talk about being hounded, which has been a feature of sport post-lockdown, and about the dehumanising tone, the objectification of the digital world.

This has been a huge change in our lives, a presence that has been under‑examined. There are five billion social media users in the world, a total that has almost tripled in the last six years. Humans have become a herd. Our feelings, our thoughts, are now networked. There has never been a species-change quite like this.

And while sport may not offer insight, it always gives you a front-row seat, a place where you see this thing, this weird new human field, with its base note of angry dissent, its riptides of human feeling, meme-led, emoji-based. And of course Kyrgios, who seems too porous for his own good, who just can’t stop talking and engaging, who has 2m followers on Instagram and constantly interacts, is deep into it.

Nick Kyrgios prepares to play a between-the-legs shot at Wimbledon.
Nick Kyrgios prepares to play a between-the-legs shot at Wimbledon. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Tennis already takes enough of a bite out of you. It easy to worry about some of these players, about Benoît Paire and Naomi Osaka and of course Kyrgios, who talks about not liking tennis but gives himself away with the joy in the manner in which he plays, the creative shots, the delicate hands, the way he seems to be not just repeating patterns, but pushing the edges of how he can play this thing.

Kyrgios is in so many ways a goon and goofball, but also a definitely modern figure, a superconductor for that skein of rage and hunger that follows these people now. It is good to see him still in the Wimbledon draw. He may lack a filter. But you can see what he wants, really, is to be loved. It would be apt if this stuffy, starchy, oddly affectionate place could give him some of that.

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