Talent, showmanship and desire: Would we be OK with players like Kyrgios and Monfils never winning a Slam?
You watch Nick Kyrgios move to his right in a rally, and instead of getting his feet into position to hit a topspin forehand, he just flails at the ball and slaps it back, finding the court be damned. He spends a grand total of two seconds between points, rushing his opponent into a warp-speed contest. He refuses to run for anything that falls more than a foot away from him. He attempts to hit 120mph second serves.
He mopes around, argues with the umpire, heckles the crowd, and in general looks like he'd rather be anywhere but on the court. Who cares about winning the match? All that matters is for little Nick to go home and get some sleep.
Amazingly, this is not even an unfamiliar sight now.
Are supremely talented athletes predisposed to care less about winning? We've all seen players like Marcelo Rios, Mark Philippoussis, David Nalbandian and Marat Safin end their careers with significantly less titles than their obvious gifts seemed likely to produce. More recently, we've seen Ernests Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz flame out before their careers even properly started. And now, we've seemingly got Nick Kyrgios to keep the flattering-to-deceive flag flying high.
I know what you're thinking; Kyrgios is still all of 21 years old. Roger Federer won his first Major just a couple of months shy of his 22nd birthday, and he's the presumptive GOAT. Who's to say Kyrgios won't enter the GOAT conversation by the time his career comes to an end?
Yes, the Australian has time on his side. But when he puts in performances like the one he did against Mischa Zverev today in Shanghai, I struggle to picture him ever holding aloft a Slam trophy.
By any objective measure, Kyrgios tanked the match. Mischa is no pushover, but he's a 29-year-old whose current ranking is 110 and whose career-best ranking of 45 was achieved six years ago. He has his bag of tricks, with his deft slices and sharp volleys and lefty forehands, but when you look at the distinct lack of firepower in his game you know why he has never made it a habit of defeating the top players in the world. To put it in a nutshell, Mischa is no Sascha.
In normal circumstances, that wouldn't have mattered much. The glorious unpredictability of tennis means that on any given day, a Lukas Rosol has a chance to topple a Rafael Nadal, and a Sergiy Stakhovsky has the ability to upset a Roger Federer. But this wasn't any given day. This was a day on which Kyrgios, a tennis professional, decided that a tennis match wasn't really worth his time.
He soft-balled first serves into play and moved to his chair before Zverev had even hit the return. He made foolhardy forays to the forecourt without being remotely in position to hit a volley. He made no attempt to move while receiving serve.
Things got so bad that at one point umpire Ali Nili was forced to tell him, “Nick, you can’t play like that. It’s just not professional. This is a professional tournament.”
Not that that had any effect. Kyrgios’ disinterested play continued till the end of the match, bottoming out with this potentially-immortal line: “Can you call time so I can finish this match and go home.”
The crowd in attendance probably wanted the same thing. They booed him on and off during the match, with one spectator even shouting out, “You gotta respect the game!” Kyrgios, of course, had a ready response to that. “You wanna come here and play? Sit down and shut up and watch.”
He was similarly unapologetic in his post-match press conference. When asked if he thought the crowd had a right to expect more effort from him, he said, “Not at all. I feel like if they knew what they were talking about they’d be on the tennis court and being successful as well.”
He didn't stop there, going on to snarl, “I don’t owe them anything. It’s my choice. If you don’t like it, I didn’t ask you to come watch. Just leave,” and “If you’re so good at giving advice and so good at tennis, why aren’t you as good as me? Why aren’t you on the tour?”
Kyrgios, of course, has been on the tour for a while now, and with good reason. When he first made a splash in 2014, shocking Rafael Nadal in the 4th round at Wimbledon, we couldn't stop raving about his ability to casually flick winners past his opponents while looking thoroughly bored. There was that tweener to beat all tweeners, and the shot-making savants among us were sold.
But we should've been cautioned by Nadal's reaction to the shot, which seemed to suggest that he wasn't impressed. Later at his press conference, Nadal went a step further and said that we should hold off on anointing Kyrgios the next big thing in the sport.
“The sport is a mental part a lot of times. He has things, positive things, to be able to be a good player. But at the end, everything is a little bit easier when you are arriving. Everything is new. Nothing to lose. Everything is good. Everything is positive. You can do whatever and will be positive, and everybody see just the good things on you.”
Perhaps Kyrgios should take comfort in the fact that everybody is NOT just seeing the good things in him now? Clearly, he isn't ‘arriving’ any more; he has already arrived, and the expectations have accordingly gone upwards.
When I first saw that tweener, I was instantly reminded of another outrageously gifted player who hasn't yet done justice to his potential: Gael Monfils. The Frenchman is one of the quickest players to ever set foot on a court, can hit a forehand as hard as Juan Martin del Potro, and has no discernible weaknesses in his unique game that blends power and touch to perfection.
And yet, Monfils has never reached a Slam final, and has never come close to the No. 1 ranking. He spends much of his time on the court standing 10 feet behind the baseline, automatically negating the firepower advantage he holds over nearly every player in the world. More damningly though, his desire to put on a show for the crowd often seems to trump his eagerness to win. What's a La Monf match without at least five highlights reel points, irrespective of the result?
A month ago, Monfils faced Novak Djokovic in the semifinal of the US Open, and many thought he had a chance to stretch the less-than-100%-fit World No. 1. What unfolded on the court, however, was a cringeworthy excuse for a match filled with listless stabs and half-hearted returns – one player seemed unable to produce his best tennis, and the other seemed unwilling to.
Did Monfils tank the biggest match of his career? Some suggested it was a ploy to throw Djokovic off his game, and the Frenchman certainly saw it that way. But that explanation would have been a little more convincing if Monfils didn't already have a history of giving less than his 100% in some of his matches.
Consider, for example, his match against Jiri Vesely at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, where only one player seemed interested in winning the match.
So here we have two preposterously talented players, both of whom can produce spectacular winners at will and make their opponents look silly. They both also seem to have the same glaring problem: they don't have that ironclad desire to win, the one quality that separates the good players from the great.
Monfils and Kyrgios are a decade apart in age but you'd be forgiven for thinking they grew up and trained together. Throwing away disctinctly winnable matches for no good reason other than that they “couldn't care less” is becoming a bit of a habit – at least for Kyrgios – and that can't be easy to digest for anyone.
So what would happen if the two self-destructive prodigies were made to face off against each other? As we saw in the Tokyo semifinal last week, the result can be spectacular and infuriating at the same time.
The point above had a bit of everything, and it doesn't take an expert to tell that what these two players were doing with their racquets is something that can't be taught. Kyrgios’ tweener in itself would have brought down the roof anywhere in the world, but the two proceeded to exchange a series of perfectly timed strokes even after that. The touch and finesse in each shot was undeniable; this was tennis talent at its most sublime.
But notice how careless Kyrgios is with his footwork, and how he bunts a couple of backhands with seemingly no purpose behind them. Note also how Monfils seems content to slice the ball back in play, even when he has more than enough time to come over it and smack a blistering topspin bullet.
This was an eye-popping show of skill, and it was also an unecessary dispay of showmanship. Each player seemed more intent on one-upping the other in the style stakes than in actually winning the point. On this rare occasion the crowd got their money's worth, so nobody complained; in fact, many went so far as to say it was the point of the year.
After today's loss to Zverev though, Kyrgios has turned into a villain again. Throwing a match against a journeyman does not do anything to further your reputation as a super-talented maverick, and even the justifications of ‘tennis needs colourful personalities’ have started wearing thin. A week ago Kyrgios had people going to the extreme of calling him the author of the point of the year; now, they are going to the other extreme of demanding a ban for him.
Nick Kyrgios just needs to retire. He is a disgrace and an embarrassment or the ATP need to ban him. Throwing matches is just not on.— The Badger (@SportsTrader_AU) October 12, 2016
In my eyes the way Nick Kyrgios sometimes plays tennis is far more ban-worthy than his language etc..... needs to be punished— Chris Goldsmith (@TheTennisTalker) October 12, 2016
Sport needs personality but what Kyrgios did today is totally out of order. Should get a long ban from tennis.— tim payton (@timpayton) October 12, 2016
It's genuinely getting well past the point where ATP should just ban Kyrgios completely.— Mobeen Hamid (@Mobeen94) October 12, 2016
But if we were being completely objective, is a ban on Kyrgios justified? Not all players are alike, and from where I'm looking, it's unreasonable to expect every pro to attach the same amount of obsessive importance to their career.
The highlight of Kyrgios’ post-match interview today was a line that was probably not intended to be as thought-provoking as it turned out to be. “You want to buy a ticket? Come watch me. You know I’m unpredictable. It’s your choice. I don’t owe you anything. Doesn’t affect how I sleep at night.”
“It's your choice.” That's exactly what can be said of Kyrgios’ play too. It's his career, and so it's his choice how much effort he wants to put into his tennis. Sure, the ATP rulebook does have a penalty (of a fine up to US$10,000) for not putting in your ‘best effort’, but there's a reason why the penalty cannot extend to a ban. At the end of the day, it is up to the players what they want to make of their career; they don't ‘owe the crowds anything’, as Kyrgios so acidly put it.
Remember also that tennis is not a team game but an individual one, and that the players get paid only for winning – and not for showing up on the court (except in cases of small tournaments shelling out appearance fees, which is a whole different conversation altogether). If we slack off at our workplace we’ll get fired. But if a tennis player slacks off he doesn’t need to be fired, because he’s already getting penalized by not banking any prize money.
Why then do we feel so scandalized when we see a tank-job like this? I believe it is because of how we as fans look at the game. For us, tennis is a form of entertainment that is both an exalted science and a heroic struggle. We take as much pleasure in the scintillating displays of skill that the players put up, as in the gladiatorial battles of grit that they so regularly produce. One quality without the other seems incomplete, and also somehow feels like a waste of our money.
There's also the paternal instinct among fans to want talented players to achieve success. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone say, “My heart bleeds to see how few Slams Safin won,” or “How I wish Berdych had the mentality of a Nadal; he'd be unbeatable then.” Sport-watching is one of the most obviously vicarious pleasures that humans have ever known, and the sadness at seeing talent go to ‘waste’ is very real.
Yes, as a fan I hate matches like the one that was thrust upon me today. And to be perfectly honest, I've also always disliked Monfils as a player; I frequently have to bite my tongue when I hear people going on about how ‘entertaining’ he is. But that doesn't give me the right to call for his head.
For players like Kyrgios and Monfils, tennis could well be nothing more than a hobby. Going out on the court could merely be a way to express their creative instincts, to show off their natural gifts. We may want them to make good on their talent and join the ranks of the sport's greatest players, but for all we know they harbour no such ambitions. And can you really crucify someone for lacking ambition?
15 years ago a player named Roger Federer faced the same kind of scrutiny that Kyrgios and Monfils are facing today. People called the Swiss a talented spoiled brat who lacked the discipline and desire to become a dominant champion. His game looked ‘casual’ like Kyrgios’ too, and he regularly suffered meltdowns in matches that he had no business losing. Why wasn't he trying more, we asked?
But then, a switch was somehow flipped in Federer's head that made him buckle down and learn to grind out wins. Today, nobody can accuse him of giving anything less than his 100% to the sport; 17 Grand Slams have a way of shutting down that kind of talk.
That switch may never be flipped for either Kyrgios or Monfils; they may never win a Slam or come close to the No. 1 ranking. But that's alright, because if nothing else, they have earned the right to live life their own way. Their tennis might range from the stunning and the sublime to the shoddy and the shameful, and there's nothing we can do about it.
Except letting out full-blown rants about their disgraceful antics, of course. Surely we as spectators have earned that right?