Wimbledon loves its heroes and villains – and the Centre Court third round grudge match between the much celebrated Rafa Nadal and the much maligned Nick Kyrgios appeared to pit both ends of spectrum against each other.
Two incidents in particular have proved controversial. In the first, Kyrgios admitted to trying to hit Nadal with the ball during a point. In the second, he twice served underarm. In neither case did Kyrgios break any rule. So, why the controversy?
Standards of ethical conduct in sport are a mixture of rules, values, and conventions. The rulebook does not capture fully what conduct should be expected of athletes during competition. For example, nowhere in the rules of football does it prescribe either that players must kick the ball out of play when an opponent is injured or that players must shake hands with members of the opposing team at the end of a match. These norms are matters of “convention” – standards that have been tacitly agreed within that sport but not included in the rulebook.
Both criticisms of Kyrgios rest on the claim that, even though he broke no rules, he violated “unwritten rules”. But he was right to challenge these conventions, as both are bad conventions for professional sport.
The body shot
The first incident concerned a point where Nadal approached the net and, from the baseline, Kyrgios struck a forehand directly at him. The forehand was hit with such venom that all Nadal could do was to stop the ball with his racket. Nadal aimed a long, disapproving glare at Kyrgios following the incident, but Kyrgios made no apology. In the post-match press conference, Kyrgios insisted that he had no reason to apologise: “Why would I apologise? I won the point.”
In singles tennis (though not in doubles), there is a convention against “body shots” – shots aimed at one’s opponent with the intention of hitting them. The rationale is both a concern for the welfare of the player at whom the ball is directed and the belief that aiming a ball at one’s opponent is inherently disrespectful to them.
With regard to welfare, one suspects there is more chance of Nadal being injured by slipping on Wimbledon’s grass than being injured by Kyrgios’ forehand from 40 feet away. If a player does not wish to be hit by the ball, they can simply turn their back to their opponent and stop contesting the point. But Nadal faced Kyrgios at the net and sought to contest the point while benefiting from a convention that ruled out one of his opponent’s best options – the body shot. This is the stuff of Saturday morning social tennis, not the pinnacle of professional sport.
An important dimension of sporting excellence is discerning which risks are those worth taking – and in tennis one of those decisions is whether to approach the net if my opponent can strike the ball so hard that it might hit me. If I don’t want to have my reactions tested in this way, I could elect not to come to the net or to concede the point when I think that the risk of being hit has become too high.
But there are circumstances, even at the professional level, in which it would be disrespectful to hit the ball at one’s opponent. Namely, when the opponent has conceded the point and has clearly indicated this, or when they are no longer able to contest the point due to injury or accident (falling over, for example).
So, the convention should be reformulated as: “Do not hit the ball at your opponent when they have ceased to contest the point or are no longer capable of contesting the point.” As long as the opponent chooses to contest the point and is capable of doing so, they should be considered a legitimate target for body shots. Players refer to it as “tagging” an opponent, although it would be considered unethical to deliberately set out to injure them.
The underarm serve
Kyrgios has also been criticised for hitting underarm serves during the match. This is not the first time that Kyrgios has been criticised for this. The first underarm serve was an ace, because it bounced twice before Nadal could reach it. This was applauded by the crowd. His second underarm serve also won him a point when Nadal hit his return into the net. But this was met with boos from the crowd.
Again, the accusation is that Kyrgios broke one of the sport’s “unwritten rules”. The underarm serve is thought to express disrespect for one’s opponent, because such serving is assumed to convey that the opponent does not deserve the respect of being served to “properly” with an overarm serve.
But Kyrgios serves underarm when his opponent has retreated far behind the baseline, leaving a large section of the front court unprotected. The opponent has sought an advantage by moving behind the baseline, but this leaves them vulnerable to shots that land short. Kyrgios merely exploits a vulnerability that is an inevitable byproduct of the opponent’s tactical decision to stand further back.
The underarm serve is a move within a game of “cat and mouse” – and this tactical contest is the very essence of tennis. No tactic is without some weakness – and part of what makes tennis so engrossing is following how each player attempts to identify and exploit the shortcomings of their opponent’s tactics.
But if one were winning a match comfortably and began serving underarm, that could communicate disrespect to the receiver, because it might suggest that the server believes they can win without trying their best. So, the convention needs to be revised to: “Do not serve underarm when there is no good tactical reason for doing so.”
Kyrgios has been criticised for violating conventions which, in their present form, are unjustified. Both are confused and need reformulation so they apply to a much narrower range of cases. Underarm serves and body shots should be recognised as legitimate tactics in professional tennis. With these two conventions, tennis needs to catch up with Kyrgios – the “villain” has shown us the way forward.