I am all for giving youngsters time and tolerance as they grow up in the spotlight, but there are limits. At this stage, letting Nick Kyrgios off with a $16,500 fine and another round of outrage for throwing a tennis match is the wrong move for both tennis and for Kyrgios.
He is no longer a teenager or a rookie. He has been playing tour-level events since 2013. Tough love and firm boundaries are in order even for a tortured tennis genius.
If not for a recent ATP rule change, Kyrgios, 21, would be facing an automatic eight-week suspension. Although there is no guarantee the ATP will suspend him for his latest shenanigans, tour officials have not ruled it out.
Kyrgios’ behavior during his 6-3, 6-1 loss Wednesday to Mischa Zverev in the second round of the Shanghai Masters event was deplorable.
He looked uninterested in winning, tapping a serve over the net midway through the first set and then walking to his chair before Zverev even had the chance to hit a return. Kyrgios’ effort level waxed and waned (mostly waned) from there. At one stage, he even impatiently told the chair umpire Ali Nili, who made his own mistakes Wednesday, that he should call “time” so “I can finish this match and go home.”
The match was a sham, and the spectators expressed their displeasure at paying good money to watch something of no competitive value. There were boos and jeers.
So what was Kyrgios’ response to a disgruntled fan as he waited for Zverev to serve out the match? “You wanna come here and play?” Kyrgios asked him. “Sit down and shut up and watch.”
There were apparently other incriminating comments that the television coverage did not pick up, and there was precious little contrition in his postmatch news conference. (The mea culpa came later on his Twitter account.)
After officials in Shanghai reviewed the match, the ATP fined Kyrgios on Thursday the on-site maximum of $10,000 for lack of best effort along with $5,000 for verbal abuse of a spectator and $1,500 for unsportsmanlike conduct. Considering he earned $35,845 for reaching the second round in Shanghai, that seemed light.
But it does not have to end there, and it should not end there. The match and Kyrgios’ antics are being examined by Gayle David Bradshaw, the executive vice president for rules and competition at the ATP.
An additional fine and a lengthy suspension are possible, which could affect his participation in his home Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, if Grand Slam authorities decide to follow an ATP ban with one of their own.
“There are two stages to this,” Bradshaw said in a telephone interview Thursday. “There’s the on-site fine capabilities in the hands of our supervisors. Once they have completed their job on site, then it moves over to my office to review and determine if further action is warranted. And that’s the stage we’re at now.”
Unfortunately, this is becoming a ritual. In August 2015, Kyrgios was fined $12,500 after making crude and vindictive comments to Stan Wawrinka about Wawrinka’s girlfriend during a Rogers Cup match in August. Bradshaw and the ATP later determined that he had committed “a major offense,” which opened up the possibility of stiffer penalties.
Instead, the ATP gave Kyrgios an escape hatch, ruling that he would be suspended for 28 days and fined $25,000 if he had any other code violations for verbal or physical abuse at an ATP event in the next six months or if he accumulated fines totaling more than $5,000 during that period.
That was soft but defensible in light of Kyrgios’ age and experience. He then cleaned up his act considerably and got through the probationary period. Despite occasional blips, he has played some remarkable tennis in 2016 and is now within striking range of the year-end top 10, where big bonuses and even more attention lurk. Three days before the Zverev fiasco, he won the most significant singles title of his career in Tokyo. But then came Shanghai.
Brad Gilbert, the U.S. coach and commentator, thinks Nili, Wednesday’s chair umpire, deserves some of the blame for not cracking down on Kyrgios early in the match.
“After the tapped serve,” Gilbert said, “you could just default him right there, no press conference, lose prize money and go home, and then it could have been a learning experience.”
The match still could be a learning experience, however. It would be one thing if Kyrgios’ internal struggles affected only himself. It is quite another when they affect the integrity of the sport.
Tanking is one of tennis’ dirtiest words. Although no one is accusing Kyrgios of match fixing, giving less than his best effort is now a pattern. There is a school of thought that Kyrgios needs psychoanalysis more than a suspension. I would argue for both, and until May he would have had a guaranteed suspension for what happened in Shanghai.
Under the previous rule, once a player had more than $10,000 in fines in any 12-month period, the next such occurrence set off an automatic eight-week suspension. But that longstanding rule was rescinded as outdated by the ATP board of directors in May.
The timing seems unfortunate in that it removes a useful degree of clarity from the process. If Kyrgios is suspended for committing a major offense, there could be plenty of room for legal maneuvering, particularly with so few precedents.
“I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve suspension; he probably does,” said Paul McNamee, the former Australian star and Australian Open tournament director. “But it will have zero effect on him. He’ll just do other stuff. He’s a flawed genius. You cannot try and mold him. It’s impossible.”
I have my doubts, having seen many a tennis bad boy mellow through the years. But even if Kyrgios is an exception, that still does not make it right to let him do nothing more than write a check and move on to the next meltdown.