This article was first published on Firstpost.com
By his own admission, Nick Kyrgios is in a loveless marriage. One that seems to the outside world to be a perfect fit. Why wouldn’t it be? He is 21, a professional sportsperson from a country where sportspeople are national heroes. At his age, he is ranked 18th, has beaten the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and has amassed more than US$ 2.5 million in prize money already.
He has the skills (and the shenanigans) to ensure that he will remain in the limelight for some time (albeit not always for reasons we would like). Lleyton Hewitt was in his long twilight when Kyrgios turned pro, and the youngster was primed to be the continent’s new ambassador in the sport. Yes, his marriage to tennis seemed like a match made in heaven. And then he said, much like a celebrity announcing a divorce, “I don’t love this sport, but I don’t know what to do without it.”
The words caused a red light to appear in the traffic of my thoughts. Surely he is the only sportsperson in the world to say that, I thought. The sentence jarred with my own background, of having spent out of my pocket (or rather, my father’s) to play in my early years.
Despite some financial rewards coming into women’s cricket later on, in the last few years of my career I was driven primarily by my desire to enjoy the game. Inspired by Justin Langer’s anecdotes in his book, ‘The Power Of Passion’, I made it a point to encourage my teammates to smile at every possible opportunity, even in the middle of high pressure games. Love for cricket was what helped me get through the bad days, where ice bags left multiple blotches of red on my legs, and my bowling figures resembled a batter’s high score.
With a little prodding, the internet told me that Kyrgios was not the only one to have made such statements. Stalwarts like Andre Agassi and Serena Williams have said similar things in their careers. In other sports, examples like Elena Delle Donne, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, and even the great Joe DiMaggio popped up.
Still mystified, I spoke to journalists and athletes. Some journos could see where Kyrgios was coming from. Given time, the sandpaper that is sports reporting – even in a compact sport like cricket, whose World Cups have only a dozen odd teams (compared with the 24 playing the Euro 2016)- can wear down even the most ardent sports fans in the profession, I was told. While some athletes said the same thing, most admitted that while they moaned like arthritic seniors about the bad days, they always played sports because they enjoyed it. When I told a cousin brother, who played water polo, what Kyrgios had said, he balked. And I realised that most Indian athletes would.
In a country where sports is classified in schools as an extra-curricular activity, it is clear where it lies on our priority list. In a country where scores of talented players walk away from their game disgusted by nepotism, regional bias, sexism and even downright corruption, sport is a tough road.
In a country where athletes simply aren’t given the respect they should, especially after their playing days, you have to be a special kind of crazy to keep playing sports. So when a player who has actually made a living out of pro sports says something like that, we cannot stop ourselves from mentally reaching for the air sickness bag.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the same sport, is a player like Roger Federer, who Rohit Brijnath called ‘the anti Kyrgios’ in this sublime piece. As heroic as Federer’s struggle past Marin Cilic was, it was a struggle. And we don’t need to point out his Friday loss to Milos Raonic to prove that he is past his apogee. Yet, before Wimbledon, he laid to bed retirement murmurs with the words, “Don’t you understand that playing tennis is great fun? I don’t need to win three slams a year to be content.”
If Kyrgios is in a loveless marriage, then Federer is in an ideal one, where he has passed the early years of passion, navigated the mid life need for validation, and found a love that is deeper and yet higher, transcending the need for effort to come to fruition.
Yet it was not always so. In a recent interview, Federer admitted that there was a lot of fire and emotion, even the dreaded attitude about him before he found the calm facade, he has worn on court for the last decade. Believe it or not, he would get angry, throw rackets, and have outbursts on court. One of his heroes was Goran Ivanisevic, who was no stranger to racket-rage himself. But he made a deliberate effort to embrace it, while keeping the anger within, and it helped fuel his rise to the top.
In ‘The Telegraph’, Jonathan Liew made an excellent counter argument to all the Kyrgios bashers, pointing out that he owes us little, if not nothing. I would go a step further to say that we owe him. For those of us who are lucky enough to get paid to do what we love, Kyrgios has reminded us that so many others are not so fortunate.
And yet, Andre Agassi won eight Grand Slams before he retired. Serena Williams equaled Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles. Kyrgios has some way to go, and as he finds himself, he will change as a player and as a person; though where those changes will take him is unknown. As he reminded me of my good fortune, in a moment of vuja-de, I felt a sense of empathy for him that was not there before.
If he truly hates tennis as much as he says, I hope he can make peace with the hand life has dealt him. For his sake, I hope his marriage to tennis – brokered by necessity, and however loveless – works.