In my debut novel “Water Music,” the first in my series “The Games Men Play,” tennis prodigy Alí Iskandar befriends rising Australian star Evan Connor Fallon – a rebel forever in search of a cause, a Bolshevik always in need of a revolution. When a grumpy flight attendant denies Evan an extra bag of peanuts on an American flight, he flies into a tizzy that lands him and traveling companion Alí in trouble with the TSA – an incident that the ever-unimaginative press soon dubs “Nutgate.”
But Evan isn’t the long-suffering Alí’s only troubled friend on tour. There’s his Olympics’ doubles partner Ryan Kovacs, who makes a mountain out of an ingrown toenail and who’s thrown into a tizzy of his own at the New York Games when his parents can’t get the accommodations they want at The Four Seasons.
It turns out, however, that truth really is stranger than fiction and that you really can’t make this stuff up. Witness 20-year-old Aussie sensation Nick Kyrgios who flamed out in his match against France’s Richard Gasquet – and yes, we all heard the one about how he blew a Gasquet. (The Twitterati – so funny.)
Anyhoo, Nick apparently tanked on a point then calmly sat down in the middle of play and proceeded to change his socks, noting that a. Gasquet didn’t mind (he didn’t) and b. Rafael Nadal takes a lot of time between points (which he does).
Did I mention Nick lost? It almost seems beside the point, doesn’t it?
Tennis has always had a lot of bad boys and, please, let’s not make fools of ourselves with this myth that in the current golden age of the Big Four – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – that gentlemanliness is the order of the day. I’m old enough to remember the teenage Fed – “a mess,” as one sports psychologist described him to me once – crying, sulking, throwing his racket and otherwise carrying on. Yes, he grew up, but his left-hand compliments suggest that he learned to cast bad behavior in a new light.
Rafa? If the OCD behavior with the picking at his butt and the touching of his hair and shirt and the lining up of water bottles and the refusal to step on a line doesn’t get you, the drawn-out points, frequent bathroom breaks (in the first set, mind you. Don’t these guys take care of that before they go out on court?) and the constant kvetching will. We know. We were there for the 2012 French Open final in which Rafa never shut up about the rain and how they made him and Nole play in the rain and then the officials said they didn’t have to play in the rain and why don’t they make up their minds and that it is always about the money.
Which brings us to dear Nole, who didn’t have much to say in that match since he was actually playing better than Rafa in the rain but nonetheless let his racket do the talking for his frustrations by using it to destroy a bench and a Perrier sign. (This led Hall of Fame Bad Boy John McEnroe, doing commentary for NBC, to say, “I can relate.”)
Nole has taken a page out of the Feddy Bear-Rafa playbook and subsumed a natural temper (remember his early days at the US Open?) in passive-aggression (the long stares at the umpires, the endless bouncing of the ball). Every once in a while, however, that temper resurfaces (yanking the towel from a young ball boy’s hands in Miami, testy Wimbledon news conferences about receiving coaching from Boris Becker in the stands, a no-no).
Then there’s the complaining that is a hallmark of the rivalry known as Rafanole. When they’re not directing it at each other, they’re ganging up on some imperfection. Remember the time Nole lost his contact lens in the middle of a match and Rafa went ballistic because he was given time to find it? Then there was the time they railed against the blue clay of the Madrid Open, prompting Fed to take the high road (until he lost on it) to make them look bad and spurring Serena Williams to remark that this was why men could never bear children: They have no guts.
Serena’s no angel in the temperament department. But she has a point and, anyway, we’re talking about the men here and the games men play.
Men, young men, are filled with testosterone. On average, they take longer to mature than women do. (Witness the four-letter soliloquys of 28-year-old Andy, a man who once got distracted by a feather in an Australian Open match against Nole). Male tennis players are like racehorses – as high-strung as you can get. Since they were 4 or so, they’ve been bouncing a tennis ball (when they weren’t using a racket to hit a sibling over the head). At a young age, they leave home to find the right coach and to play their way onto the world stage. They’re out there, exposed, alone, burnt by the sun, in more ways than one. And when they lose, as Fed has pointed out, they have to go immediately and answer questions about it.
It’s not a career for the faint- or cold-hearted. It requires passion, individualism, self-centeredness, in the sense of the centering of the self. These are qualities like all qualities. They’re neither good nor bad but context makes them so. Indeed, context drives perception.
What makes Nick interesting is what makes him frustrating – his quirky willfulness. He’s young. There’s still time for the context to shift.
Someday he may be like his idol Federer.
And we will no doubt be talking about someone else blowing a Gasquet.