Nick Kyrgios and the Return of the Tennis Bad Boy

Greg CouchNational ColumnistAugust 28, 2015

Getty Images

John McEnroe says he "can't condone'' the behavior of tennis' new bad boy, Nick Kyrgios. He says Kyrgios has gone "too far,'' that his bad behavior had diminishing returns and he'd like to offer Kyrgios some advice. Two things immediately come to mind:

1) Exactly when did John McEnroe become tennis' mother hen?

2) In the world of bad boys, McEnroe's condemnation makes for the greatest endorsement.

Actually, another thing, too: 3) Sometimes you can look in the mirror and not recognize who's looking back.

Kyrgios is a next-generation McEnroe. Or at least, he could be if done right. Or wrong, depending on how you look at it.

Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press

Kyrgios goes into the U.S. Open next week as the second-most talked-about player, behind Serena Williams, who's trying to win the Grand Slam, but above the men who have politely hogged all of the attention in men's tennis for years: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

This is when style passes substance. But the question is whether Kyrgios represents a new generation in tennis, ending an era of manners and grace and emerging with his multicolored mohawk, brightly colored clothes and outrageous behavior. You probably know: He is the one who said to opponent Stan Wawrinka on court at the Rogers Cup in Montreal earlier this month that another player had "banged your girlfriend."

Prior to the incident with Wawrinka, Kyrgios argued openly with umpires and sent his raquet flying into the crowd at Wimbledon, then attracted criticism for an obvious lack of effort during certain points in a losing effort to Richard Gasquet. A public feud with former Australian tennis star Pat Rafter has also raised eyebrows this summer.    

So is Kyrgios an exciting new bad boy tennis fans will follow? Or is he just a self-absorbed punk?

Is he tapping into young fans' desire to see someone stand up to the establishment, or is he just going way, way overboard? 

MONTREAL, ON - AUGUST 11:  Nick Kyrgios of Australia reacts during day two of the Rogers Cup against Fernando Verdasco of Spain at Uniprix Stadium on August 11, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  Nick Kyrgios defeated Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. (Pho
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

"I think it's both,'' McEnroe told Bleacher Report. "I think all sports like to see some contrast; it's not just tennis. I mean, they want to see someone with personality. No one wants to take it to the point—it's the law of diminishing returns. Right now, Nick hasn't studied that economics course...

"He's got to be on his toes. But to think that we don't need personality, that's crazy. In all sports, people want to see that. But I mean, there comes a point where if you take it too far and you're not good enough, you'll be gone. That happens in all sports, too.''

Not good enough. That might be the issue now for Kyrgios. He's just 20, and he did beat Nadal at Wimbledon last year. But bad boys have to earn their stripes. McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and even Ilie Nastase before them all won majors and were all ranked No. 1.

Kyrgios is a guy who could get there, too. He's seen as the next generation. But he's also on the verge of imploding. Not only did he make the crass remark, but also in that same match he was arguing with the chair umpire again and trying to get a line judge thrown out. He was skulking around the back of the court talking with fans about Wawrinka, waving his arms when Wawrinka was trying to hit a shot, smashing his racquet and cursing.

And you might already know all of those things, but here's a question you're less likely to be able to answer: Who won the tournament?

Here's a theory: Kyrgios hasn't gone too far at all. The outrage he created is exactly what sells. He'll play Murray in the first round of the Open next week, and people will not be tuning in to see the former Wimbledon champ. They will tune in to applaud whatever crazy thing Kyrgios does next in the face of the tennis establishment, or they'll tune in to shake their heads at him for it.

Either way, ESPN wins.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Nick Kyrgios of Australia poses with fans during day eight of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Wayne Taylor/Getty Images)
Wayne Taylor/Getty Images

And what Kyrgios said about Wawrinka's girlfriend is exactly the same type of things players in other sports say to each other. Low-class? You bet. Muhammad Ali called Joe Frazier a gorilla. That's not to compare Kyrgios and Ali in the bigger picture as human beings, but rather to give a sense of the awful things athletes say to each other. 

The microphones just happened to pick up what Kyrgios said. The word "overblown'' is coming to mind. But also, it's the same kind of behavior and the same kind of reaction to it that made McEnroe so famous, and still, all these years later, the face and voice of American tennis. McEnroe, along with fellow rebel Connors, ushered in unprecedented popularity for American tennis.

In fact, when Connors was in his prime and McEnroe was an emerging talent, tennis was more popular in the U.S. than the NBA. (Kyrgios is from Australia.)

Bob Williams, CEO of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing near Chicago, said there isn't much difference between the behavior of McEnroe and Kyrgios, but that "Kyrgios is not on the right side of the line.''

"He's obviously a controversial figure and wants to be controversial; he's made himself more recognizable,'' Williams said. "But has he made himself more marketable? To a small, limited number of brands. Brands love to associate their products and service with winners and hate to associate with controversy. Where Kyrgios goes from here is very important in terms of marketability.

"He could change his persona to be a person who is just interesting, like a Charles Barkley. Charles is controversial, but a lot of people love him. With Kyrgios, the guy hasn't shown that he's likeable. He can use his recognition and be a controversial figure, but he has to tone it down some. A comment like 'banging chicks' is not as acceptable in the mainstream as McEnroe's swear words and temper tantrums.''

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - JULY 17:  Nick Kyrgios of Australia looks on as he arrives to play against Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan during day one of the Davis Cup World Group quarterfinal tie between Australia and Kazakhstan at Marrara Sporting Complex on
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Well, that might be true as far as companies wanting to attach their names with Kyrgios'—he endorses Beats headphones—but it isn't going to hurt TV ratings. And ESPN, which has the rights to the Open, is waiting. 

"I think it is good to gain some traction and interest with the sport itself, and the personalities are wide and diverse,'' Jamie Reynolds, ESPN VP of production, said on a pre-tournament media conference call. "Tennis is one of those sports that is very polarizing. When you look at the unique individuals, 128-plus on the men, 128 on the ladies, any personality has an audience and a following out there.'' 

Polarizing sells. And over a 24-hour span this week, we saw how polarizing Kyrgios can be. In the afternoon, McEnroe was telling me he feared Kyrgios might be flaming out and that he'd like to help. The next day, McEnroe had Kyrgios playing at an event for his charity, the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.

And at the event, Nadal refused to play doubles with Kyrgios.

At the same time, the ATP Tour sees the potential in Kyrgios. For his behavior in the match against Wawrinka, he was fined and given a 28-day suspension. But the suspension doesn't kick in for six months, and if Kyrgios behaves until then, he won't have to serve it. It's probation, basically.

McEnroe thought that punishment had the right touch, sending the message to Kyrgios that he has to change, but also that the tour supports him.

While McEnroe was strongly critical of Kyrgios, he also clearly identifies with him. He wants the color and style that Kyrgios brings. His criticism seems geared toward the constructive. He said he believes Kyrgios could win majors, add flavor and be a hugely positive force for tennis. But he worries that Kyrgios' behavior might just be a sign that he's breaking down under the pressure of expectations.

"Some people wouldn't think the advice I would give him would be good,'' McEnroe said. "Hopefully, he'll get some better advice (than he's getting). I'd be happy to give him some and be supportive of this."

Advice from one generation's bad boy to the next.

A Chicago-based writer who also contributes to the New York Times, Greg Couch covers the sporting landscape for Bleacher Report.