There is Nick Kyrgios: the impish brat, the passionate young sportsman, the thoroughly talented tennis player, the six foot plus athlete putting away forehands with an almost disdainful swagger.
And then there’s the larger complex fight for what he’s meant to represent as an Australian figure.
The well crafted Beats by Dre ads are just one peek into it, where we see Nick Kyrgios the rule breaker, the Rebel without a Cause no longer draped in leather jackets and brooding eyes but now in all white apparel accessorised with a tennis racket. In a way, he is only following the path of many iconic Australian sportsmen before him as the talented, vocal, and abrasive larrikin like Lleyton Hewitt, Steve Waugh, and Shane Warne. But Australia hasn’t quite taken to Nick Kyrgios in the same way, and not just because of sporting related frustration.
Lleyton Hewitt’s early career had much of the same antics and abrasiveness in the so-called gentlemen’s game of Tennis but later became celebrated and foregrounded a culture of hyper competitive and combative tennis players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The multiple Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph opinion pieces aren’t just the same pieces concerned about talent wasted, or his behaviour on the field, like there are for the monthly rugby related night club ‘incidents’, or David Warner’s thrown punch at English Cricketer Joe Root. For one, their Australian-ness is never questioned.
Aside from the confirmation of her own senility, Dawn Fraser’s comments directed at Kyrgios to “go back to where him or his parents came from” at least had the benefit of bringing into the open the giant racist elephant in the room of how the Australian sporting media and other institutions treat their subjects. It confirmed that this was more than just the standard media tactics of tall poppy syndrome and building up idols only to cut them down later. The branding of Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic as “thugs” over general larrikinisms like “idiots” or “just a bit of a dickhead” has a certain dissociative subtext to it. The calls to stop Kyrgios from representing Australia in the Davis Cup in spite of his obvious talent are being spoken with unprecedented vitriol (especially online), and there seems to be a larger issue at hand of how we choose to represent our sporting selves.
It only seems like the Australian sporting psyche’s go-to defence mechanism at Kyrgios’ antics aren’t to play them off as larrikin behaviour to keep his ‘Australian-ness’ intact but to point towards his ethnicity in order to forfeit our ownership of him. The racially loaded criticism of rugby ‘imports’ from Polynesian backgrounds are a big deal at high school level but they subsequently become celebrated once they’re playing for the national team. The Socceroos are ‘wog-ball’ proponents that are ‘soft’ and only reach par with the Wallabies or our Olympic teams when they qualify for World Cups. ‘Australian-ness’ is negotiable when it comes to those of ethnic backgrounds on the basis of their actual success. This is not to say that players like Kyrgios are above criticism, but that we need to think far more clearly about how criticism is dealt and, with pun fully intended, the places that they’re coming from.