Last Thursday, Nick Kyrgios lost to Rafael Nadal in the second round of the Wimbledon men’s singles. In the grand scheme of things, this came as no surprise. Nadal, at 33, is one of the greatest tennis players of all time — he just won his 18th Grand Slam title, at this year’s French Open, a tournament he has now dominated for well over a decade.
Kyrgios, at 24, is ranked 43rd in the world to Nadal’s 2nd, and hasn't done any better at a Grand Slam since he beat Nadal on the way to reaching the quarter finals on his Wimbledon debut in 2014. But in its own way, Kyrgios’s loss still felt remarkable; in some small sense, it felt monumental. Because in truth, there is no better men’s tennis player in the world than Nick Kyrgios. Who cares what the rankings say, who cares how crummy his tournament performance is over time — what Kyrgios does transcends all the ordinary boundaries of what we call “sport.”
Aceing Nadal while serving underarm; showboating by hitting the ball through his own legs; attempting audacious winners only to scuff them into the net; striking the ball directly at Nadal then refusing to apologize; loudly asking the umpire if sitting on his big chair made him feel important; having a call go against him and responding by tanking the next few points. This whole second round match was vintage Kyrgios — a magnificent disaster. The game of someone like Nadal (we could also name Novak Djokovic, currently his chief rival at the traditional pinnacle of the men’s game) is monolithically functional, the product of an awesomely intense mind having done everything it ought to, in order to optimally extract every last inch of talent from its body — efficiency manifested ideally in one person. Kyrgios’s, by contrast, is an extravagant, squandered mess. When he plays, it’s obvious that his talent is almost boundless, but equally he seems determined to piss it away with baffling game management; by going out to the pub the night before a big match; by staying up playing FIFA until 3am.
Every time Kyrgios suffers a big, high-profile defeat like this, the media descends: When are you going to straighten up and fly right? Don't you know you have it in you to win a Grand Slam title? Nadal said as much in his post-match interview after beating Kyrgios, that he thought his opponent could be a future Grand Slam champion — which seems gracious, but I'm not convinced it wasn't a subtle attempt to wind Kyrgios up, the head boy complimenting the naughty one as a way of polishing his own halo. Since Kyrgios first rose to prominence as a teenager, there has been the constant demand that he conform, to use his abilities to do what would be traditionally expected of someone like him in his sport. But for Kyrgios, conforming would be the gravest mistake he could possibly make. Because it is precisely in refusing to use his talents to the maximum that Kyrgios’s true chance at greatness lies.
In his (rightly) famous 2006 essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”, David Foster Wallace describes what he terms “Federer Moments” — moments when “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re okay.”
These moments, Foster Wallace adds, “are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” (And as Wallace, a former junior tennis player, certainly had done). He cites an example from Federer’s 2005 U.S. Open final against Andre Agassi in which, towards the end of “medium-long” rally, the then-24 year-old Swiss struck a screamer of a forehand winner from out of his backhand corner, with all his body weight apparently moving in the opposite direction. “Given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot.”
“It was impossible,” Foster Wallace adds. Unfortunately, that impossibility may well be literal: video evidence suggests that nothing of the sort actually happened; Foster Wallace may have remembered a similar shot being played in another game, or simply embellished his article with something he'd made up. But regardless: the point is that for Foster Wallace, there is something almost religiously transcendent about Federer’s play — an ineffable beauty, which goes beyond the mere goal of any sport (namely: to win); to afford us a window into what it might be for the human intellect to be seamlessly integrated with the physical body.
“Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, (Federer) seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”
From a tennis perspective, Federer’s genius is of the utmost importance. According to Wallace, the transcendent beauty of Federer’s play is the sort of thing that means the sport will always be worth watching, even in a world where the game can otherwise seem to have reached its “evolutionary end-point.” As the history that Foster Wallace’s essay sketches makes clear, from the mid-1980s onwards, advances in racket technology made possible the modern power-baseline game, characterized primarily by fast, hard groundstrokes from the back of the court (as opposed to the classic serve-volley game practiced by the likes of John McEnroe).
If a sport becomes rather one-dimensionally about power and fitness, then even the best matches are going to seem rather, well, one-dimensional.
The first player to pioneer this style was the Czech-American Ivan Lendl in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — not an immortally great talent, but simply “the first top pro to demonstrate what heavy topspin and raw power could achieve from the baseline.” Lendl’s game was also characterized by his superior training and conditioning — according to another former tennis star, Mark Philippoussis, he was “one of the first players who brought that fitness thing to tennis,” i.e. he pioneered going to the gym. In both of these areas, then, Lendl's achievement was significant primarily because it was, as Wallace points out, “replicable.”
“Past a certain threshold of physical talent and training, the main requirements were athleticism, aggression, and superior strength and conditioning. The result (omitting various complications and subspecialties) has been men’s pro tennis for the last 20 years: ever bigger, stronger, fitter players generating unprecedented pace and topspin off the ground, trying to force the short or weak ball that they can put away.”
Nadal, who Wallace describes as “mesomorphic and totally martial,” in many ways represents the pinnacle of the power-baseline game. This, in a way, is fine: after all, Wallace acknowledges, “the generic power-baseline game is not boring — certainly not compared with the two-second points of old-time serve-and-volley or the moon-ball tedium of classic baseline attrition.” But it is, nonetheless, “somewhat static and limited” — if a sport becomes rather one-dimensionally about power and fitness, then even the best matches are going to seem rather, well, one-dimensional.
Federer is, in Foster Wallace’s assessment “a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner” — a player whose excellence stands very much within the modern game. “The Swiss has every bit of Lendl and Agassi’s pace on his groundstrokes, and leaves the ground when he swings, and can out-hit even Nadal from the backcourt.” But he's also so much more. “There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace.” And so Federer’s genius “has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.”
In 2006, Federer was already recognized as one of the all-time greats of men's tennis, his career tournament wins already putting him on a par with the likes of Agassi. But this was 13 years ago.
Now, I can't pretend to possess anything like Foster Wallace’s expertise when it comes to tennis — I follow tennis, and enjoy watching it on television, but I’ve never played the game in any real way and have never physically attended a professional match. But I don’t think this means my perspective is an invalid one. Spectator sports are not, after all, solely for the enjoyment of experts. And for me, as someone with only a pretty crude, irreducibly abstracted and third-personal idea of how tennis actually works, I can't really agree that Federer’s particular genius, for all his play is (often) very beautiful, actually does manage to transcend his sport in this way.
Foster Wallace’s essay was written in 2006. By then, Federer was already recognized as one of the all-time greats of men’s tennis, his career tournament wins already putting him on a par with the likes of Agassi. But this was 13 years ago. Federer (current ranking: 3) and Nadal remain at the top of their sport. The odd patch of injury or illness woes aside, this dominance has been pretty much unbroken that whole time: Federer now has 20 career Grand Slam titles. Tennis seems apt to produce these sorts of patterns: in the same period, Djokovic has won 15 Slams; Serena Williams has dominated the women’s game like a god among mortals. A few players have managed to push slightly through the hegemony — Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro before his wrist let him down. But other seeming contenders have flickered briefly only to fall short when it counts: Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and currently Sascha Zverev, the world No. 5 who got dumped out of Wimbledon in the first round this year.
And this has created a bit of an odd effect, because ultimately, with the winners of the big tournaments being, for the most part, so predictable — it becomes hard to care who exactly triumphs at the end. I'll probably be watching Wimbledon every day this week — but there’s almost certainly no way I'll remember who the champion is by the end of the year; the identity of the winner will simply melt into the endless haze of Federers or Nadals or Djokovics (I mean: I suppose there's a one in three chance I'd guess it correctly). I, the casual fan, do not care about these players winning — I might have once, but I’ve long-since seen it all before. (There is an argument, naturally, that the highest levels of the men’s game remain exciting as these tournaments have now become about which of these players can claim to be the “All-Time” greatest. But this is pointless: these players are already firmly established as greats; and given the contingencies of time, place, and style, no argument about all-time sporting greatness can ever truly be settled through mere numbers).
What I, the casual fan, will remember is Kyrgios last Thursday, slumped insolently at his post-defeat press conference like the teacher has forced him to stay back after class to explain to her why he felt the need to be so disruptive during today's lesson. Telling a journalist who asked him if he regrets his pre-match pub trip that “you looked way too excited to ask that question, you must have a really boring life.” Cringing at a question about why he didn't keep on serving under-arm after it worked twice, knowing that in the eyes of the media (whom he will later repeatedly sarcastically profess to “love”) he will always be damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Refusing to even countenance apologizing to Nadal for hitting the ball at him because “the dude has got how many slams, how much money in the bank?” Declaring that he doesn't think he can win Grand Slams.
“I know what I’m capable of. I’m a great tennis player, but I don’t do the other stuff. I’m not the most professional guy. I won’t train day in, day out. I won’t show up every day. There’s a lot of things I need to improve on to get to that level that Rafa brings, Novak, Roger, have been doing for so long. Just depends how bad I want it. But, no, at the moment I don’t think I can contend for a Grand Slam.”
Federer’s achievement, as Foster Wallace makes clear, is aesthetic: he took the brutely functional power-baseline game and turned it into something beautiful. But by now we've seen that beauty, over and over again; Monet painting endless water lilies. Kyrgios offers us a transcendence far more significant. His achievement is political. In a world obsessed with the constant pursuit of efficiency and growth; where success is equal to the fevered, self-destructive extraction of every available resource, Kyrgios deliberately leaves the possibilities of his talent unused. The conformity of Federer, Nadal et al to the norms of their sport is identical to conformity with a world that, left unchecked, will kill us all. By refusing to bend to what is expected of him in the world of professional tennis (itself stuffy and deferential even by the standards of most sport), Kyrgios resists this.
Kyrgios may well never win a Grand Slam title. But this is not all that tennis — or any sport — is about. What I love about sports is that, while winning may invariably be the goal, it often really doesn’t count so much as losing brilliantly; what really matters is the narrative, what sports say about society more broadly. It’s hard to pretend that everything Kyrgios does is exemplary — throwing chairs on court, or bringing up the alleged infidelity of his opponent’s girlfriend as a sledging tactic, are the behaviors of someone who is, at minimum, a bit of a prick. But by making his failure spectacular, Kyrgios can evolve tennis past not only the power-baseline game, but Federer too: it is in refusing the norms of his sport that he has it in him to become an all-time great.