Nick Kyrgios: Villain or anti-hero?

Is the tennis star really deserving of his villainous reputation?

A digital illustration of Kyrgios in action against a light blue background Artwork by BrownTown

In the tropical paradise of Acapulco, Mexico, far away from any of the grand slam tennis tournaments, Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios is battling away against all-time great Rafael Nadal. Battling is possibly not the right word for a performance such as this. The first set has been taken by the Spaniard and Kyrgios is about to throw in the towel, citing sickness. Australia groans collectively.

Yet, from the depths of defeat, the Australian manages to turn the tables to beat the reigning French Open champion before beating two more top 10 players and a former grand slam champion to win the tournament. Thrown into the mix is some swearing at fans, racquet smashing and an underhand serve. Nonetheless, one would expect that, having won the biggest title of his career, Kyrgios would be met with applause in Australia.

Channel 10 didn’t think so. Their headline read: “Nick Kyrgios just won his first professional tennis tournament in 14 months. So why does he look so unhappy?” This poses the question: where does Nick Kyrgios fit in to contemporary Australian discourse? The answer is complicated, but he certainly is the anti-hero we need in Australian media.

There is no doubt that Nick Kyrgios has done some things that have warranted stern criticism. He has deliberately tanked on some of the biggest stages all around the world, he has sworn at umpires, he has smashed racquets and he has made misogynistic remarks about a competitor’s partner. A lot of these things are indefensible and should not be excused.

Outside these circumstances however, the media often fails to properly reflect on Kyrgios’ age and inexperience when it comes to his inability to craft a flawless public image. He is still only 23 years old — barely older than most undergrad students.

We are so used to the sterilised and carefully curated image of the ideal tennis player — players like Federer and Nadal know exactly what to say and how to say it to the media, and who have PR machines as well as endless experience to back this up. But we should note that this is not the norm. These players are extraordinary, and we should congratulate them for that, but they are also of a slightly different generation. Kyrgios is not a hero like them in the conventional sense, but rather an anti-hero in the sense that he embodies a lot of the feelings that young people do feel and the way we react to things. On a fundamental level, he is one of us and we should celebrate that. He is of us.

The idea of an anti-hero is an interesting one. In a PhD dissertation, by Leslie Erickson, she explains that anti-heroes are those who possess their “own moral compass, constru[ing] their own values as opposed to those recognised by society.” Kyrgios clearly does not conform to the values traditionally recognised by the tennis world. Yet, he does have a clear moral compass himself and a strong set of personal values.

In 2015, he established the NK Foundation where he helps disadvantaged children through sport. After every match win, instead of a gloating post on social media like a lot of players, he simply posts a link to his foundation website. Around tournaments, and in his hometown of Canberra, he is constantly hitting the practice courts with young children, giving them a day they will never forget. This kind of dedication is rarely seen from any famous tennis player. For someone receiving the amount of attention that Kyrgios does, to have such a strong altruistic side at a relatively young age is nothing but commendable.

He also generally offers some form of congratulations to players after a good shot and is normally very respectful when giving credit to opponents after a loss. This cannot be said for all players (even those at the very top of the game such as 3 time grand slam champion Angelique Kerber last week described her victorious opponent the “biggest drama queen ever” at the handshake). Whatever your opinions of Kyrgios, this is worth recognising.

Now, why is Kyrgios so important to contemporary Australian discourse? There are a few reasons for this.

The young star has been very open about his struggles with mental health. After his win in Acapulco, Kyrgios offered reassurance to others sharing the same burden.

“It’s hopefully an example for people who are struggling and getting in some places you don’t think you can get out of. If I can do it, you can do it,” he said.

This statement combined with his frequent posts on social media about depressive illnesses and anxiety have opened up a dialogue about mental health. Kyrgios has often been stigmatised in the media for factors that could be

contributed to mental health issues and an open dialogue and public self-acceptance of his struggles could well be a defining factor for fellow young adults to open up about these extremely important issues.

It is also important to note that the media has often resorted to “othering” the Australian tennis star. Commentators often propagate an “us vs him” dichotomy in regard to Kyrgios, which can make it difficult to identify with him. Kyrgios has described his passion for representing Australia on many occasions, yet still frequently shares unfathomably racist messages that he receives on social media. He is providing further example to children who embody multicultural Australia, that it is possible to follow your dreams, even in spite of being “othered” in various ways. It is a very powerful message to send to any increasingly multicultural population and once again, typifies what it is to be an anti-hero.

Underlining all this is the simple fact that Nick Kyrgios brings attention to the game of tennis. Whatever he does invokes a strong and varied opinion from an equally varied audience. He plays to packed stadiums all around the world. He has a huge social media following and appeals to younger generations globally who revere his “bad-boy” attitude. He has collaborated with NBA star Kyrie Irving on a tennis show for the Australian Open, opening up the game of tennis to a whole new fanbase. His ridiculous tweener shots make the headlines everywhere. Kyrgios has given rise to a renewed interest amongst our generation in a sport which has a median viewer age of 61.

Yet, for all the positives that Nick Kyrgios brings to the table, there is always someone ready to have a go at him. It’s time that we stop unfairly vilifying Nick Kyrgios and we accept him as the anti-hero that contemporary Australian discourse needs.

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