Bounce of the ball

Double fault: Nick Kyrgios, Dawn Fraser and reputations under the spotlight

EPA/Gerry Penny

At Wimbledon 2015 there have been widely published, powerful criticisms about Nick Kyrgios’ conduct, both on court and in press conferences. Much of that advice is well intended, with the hope that a behaviourally erratic 20-year-old will find cause to modify some of his excesses, learning how to be impressive with both racquet and vocal chords. Yet from a personal branding perspective, it seems that Kyrgios has chosen – and been encouraged – to cultivate a reputation for indignation and remonstration.

For some observers this is welcome. Tennis legend John McEnroe, no stranger to controversy when he was playing, suggested to a BBC audience that Kyrgios represented a welcome return to “characters” for the tennis world.

Yet others, even though complimentary about Kyrgios’ athleticism and shot-making, have lamented what might be politely described as episodes of poor character amid the razzle dazzle. Wimbledon, the most historic of the majors, is where tennis players are afforded global profile. How athletes deal with that spotlight is crucial to their reputational cachet, both as athletes and celebrities.

In the lead-up to Wimbledon 2015, Kyrgios signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Dr Dre, a well-known manufacturer of the “Beats” range of advanced headphones, earphones and mobile speakers. This company, owned by Apple Corporation, targets a youth market that consumes downloadable or streamed music. Dr Dre had previously used LeBron James and Serena Williams to showcase its products; from this perspective outstanding physical activity is “inspired” by emotionally charged music.

Kyrgios, though hardly a tried and true sport champion like James and Williams, epitomises what Dr Dre is looking for in a product champion – excitement, flamboyance, individualism and excellence. In Kyrgios’ case, there is the added spice of non-conformity: the swagger of an NBA player, a “hip” haircut and earrings, and a love of purple suits.

There has been widespread commentary about Kyrgios’ often confrontational on-court conduct at Wimbledon 2015. It is almost as if he is acting out the Dr Dre advertisement in which he features – “Play Your Own Rules” – summarised thus:

The rules of tennis tell you how should act, how you should play, how you should dress and overall, how you should be. What they don’t tell you is, how to play at your best. For that, you have to “Play Your Own Rules”.

Powerbeats2 Wireless gives Nick Kyrgios the freedom to train as hard as he can and the Beats Solo2 allows him to focus his mind before each match. Hardcore training and maximum focus are needed to perform at his highest level.

It is somewhat surprising, though, that the Dr Dre campaign, in which Kyrgios embodies someone who flouts the rules, does not appear to have attracted much in the way of critical scrutiny. The conventional attributes of reputable conduct in lawn tennis are, it seems, rather old-fashioned and irrelevant elements of the game that the “Beats” video suggests Kyrgios “should” play.

While it must be admitted that this commercial is a dramatic representation, it is uncanny that much of it came to resemble how Kyrgios acted at Wimbledon 2015. Life imitated art.

The Kyrgios saga has since taken a twist, with the young man and his family bearing the brunt of an outburst from a 20th-century Australian sporting icon, swimmer Dawn Fraser. Interviewed on a breakfast television show, Fraser – who was understandably incensed at some of Kyrgios’ conduct at Wimbledon – argued that he “should be setting a better example for the younger generation” of Australians.

Fair call, many would say. But she followed this by asserting that if Kyrgios – and his troubled compatriot Bernard Tomic – did not appreciate what conduct was required to represent Australia, they should “go back to where their fathers or parents came from” for:

… we don’t need them here in this country if they act like that.

Kyrgios’ father was born in Greece; his mother in Malaysia. Tomic’s father is from Croatia; his mother from Bosnia.

Fraser was roundly criticised for these comments. Kyrgios slammed her as “blatantly racist”, while his mother deemed Fraser’s comments – with obvious irony – as “un-Australian”.

Fraser’s attack has unwittingly shifted the spotlight from Kyrgios’s behaviour to her own. Facing a public backlash, she initially stonewalled. Later, she delivered an “unreserved apology”, explaining – with curious logic – that her remarks were made “on a purely sporting level” and:

… not meant as an attack on Nick’s ethnicity.

At this point, Fraser acknowledged the contribution to Australian sport “of individuals from a variety of different countries of origin”.

It might be construed that Fraser, in an off-guard moment, had simply lost perspective. She is a passionate supporter of Australians in sport, and zealous about their performances. Ironically, she is no stranger to controversy as an athlete – infamously being suspended after allegedly stealing a flag at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

However, to suggest that Fraser’s comments were spur of the moment or taken out of context would be naïve. She has been an avid supporter of Pauline Hanson and the anti-immigration One Nation party, and once told the ABC that she was:

… sick and tired of the immigrants that are coming into my country.

Now, it seems, one solution is to send migrants back to where they came from. Unless they are well behaved, like Fraser.

Kyrgios has been evaluated as “the most marketable athlete in Australia”. His reputation has been forged, at least in part, by bucking convention and being highly passionate. These attributes are sometimes used to deflect criticisms that aspects of his behaviour are disagreeable and regrettable.

In her own way, Fraser also bucked convention as an athlete, and she is highly passionate about Australian performances in sport. To some people, Fraser has the best of intentions, even if – as she put it herself – her message is not “delivered as articulately as it could have been”.

For both Kyrgios and Fraser, passion is a strength and a weakness, but no excuse for repeated indiscretions.