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The Bad Boy

For the last week or so, my wife and I have been eating breakfast with an eye on whoever’s playing at Wimbledon. I’m developing a fondness for the game, I have to say, both watching and playing. Although I suppose you can’t really call what I do on the tennis court “playing.” But I digress. There have been some fascinating matches at the All-England Club over the last few days, not least watching Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic continue to dominate well into their thirties. Hooray for the old guys.

There has also been Nick Kyrgios. I didn’t know much about this player prior to this week. I knew he was from Australia. I knew he was a big hitter that hadn’t won a Grand Slam yet. But this week, the world has been introduced to him in a big way. He’s been playing phenomenally, for starters. He’s in the semi-finals and will take on Nadal on Friday. But as compelling as his play has been, it’s his behaviour that has everyone talking. Nick Kyrgios marches to the beat of his own drum. He doesn’t have a coach. He claims to not even like tennis that much (I guess a guy’s gotta do what he can to pay the bills). He barely takes a break between serves, moving the game along at a ridiculous pace (for tennis). He cares little for the etiquette and fineries of events like Wimbledon.

He also seems like a genuinely obnoxious human being. He’s been fined for spitting at fans. He rants and rages constantly on the court (against the umpire? his opponent? fans? himself?). He curses and verbally abuses officials (ball boys, line judges, umpires). He complains almost constantly, inexplicably even when he’s winning. He tried to get his opponent disqualified earlier in the tournament for swatting a ball into the stands in frustration, and forced the match to be paused for around twenty minutes while he pleaded his case to anyone and everyone who would listen. He sees himself as the bad boy of tennis and seems to love playing up the fact that everyone is out to get him. He’s a great player, but boy does he make it hard to cheer for him.

One of the unique things about Wimbledon is that the traditions of the tournament require that players wear all white. Understandably, this does not sit well with Nick Kyrgios. I doubt many players love it, truth be told, particularly those under thirty who have been formed and marinated in the culture of individual expressivism. What could be more retrograde than everyone looking the same? How is someone supposed to express their wonderful uniqueness when they’re told what to wear?! But Kyrgios makes his distaste for this all-white imperative clear, changing out of his white shoes and hat as soon as his match is over, walking off the court and doing interviews in a black hat or red and black Air Jordan shoes or a loud Dennis Rodman t-shirt. As far as statements go, his isn’t hard to interpret.

Nick Kyrgios is either a heroic individual or an insufferable irritant and disrespecter of tradition, depending on your perspective (and, perhaps, your age). Kyrgios is fond of making the point that he makes for compelling television. Everyone wants to see what he’ll do next. It’s like the car crash you can’t help but slow down for. Tennis is hurting for ratings and young viewers, after all. Why not embrace someone like him? Some of the elder statesmen of the game (Federer, Nadal, etc.) seem to have little use for his antics. He should have more deference to those who have gone before him. He should respect his opponents and the officials more than he does. He should behave with a bit more dignity and self-restraint. Etc.

While I would put myself solidly in the latter category, I think Nick Kyrgios perfectly illustrates our cultural moment. So many have little use for institutions and care mostly about themselves and projecting their uniqueness out into the world to be celebrated and affirmed. Or critiqued and vilified, which is just another form of uniqueness, after all. The only thing that matters is that the individual be noticed, that attention be paid. F*** anyone who doesn’t acknowledge this, right? Attention is the only currency that matters. When nothing is given, everything must be taken. This is the message that generations of people being formed on social media are being trained to internalize. This is what the algorithms reward.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the impulse to try to stand out, to seek attention. Fully. I have played that game to varying degrees at various points in my life. I still find it hard to resist at times. But a funny thing is happening. The older I get, the more I like traditions, whether it’s important things like the traditions of the ancient church or less weighty ones like all-white at Wimbledon. Traditions give us grooves to slide into, narratives bigger than ourselves to inhabit. They’re not infallible, obviously, but they should not be disregarded too casually.

And beyond the importance of traditions, I am convinced we need a better, healthier anthropology. I’m hardly alone here, I know, but I think the imperative to define and project and justify and amplify oneself is an exhausting, self-defeating, and never-ending one. We weren’t made to be constantly making ourselves up as we go. And we certainly weren’t made to demand that everyone praise us for it.

Nick Kyrgios is a playing some fantastic tennis right now, but I’m really hoping Nadal has at least one more big performance in those aging legs on Friday. For the old guys and for some of the older ways that we should pay more attention to than we do.

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