Noise at the Tennis

Hello. We normally write about the Raiders, but this was nagging at my brain this week. Normal broadcasts will resume tomorrow.


If you’ve had half an eye on the tennis this week, you may have noticed a bit of a hullabaloo over the way people are supporting Nick Kyrgios.

The style of support that the duo of Kyrgios and his partner Thanasi Kokkinakis have received is a bit unusual for tennis. More vociferous. More pointed, even to the point of breaking long held Tennis conventions such as cheering opponent faults. Crowds have yelled during points, creating a cacophony of noise (and done that siuuuuuu thing that I don’t care enough about football to understand) that would be welcome, if not celebrated, at any other sport save for Tennis, golf and maybe I dunno, equestrian or some shit like that. To put it mildly, it’s been loud.

It’s created a bit of a schism in the Australian public. Nick on his own has achieved this in the past, becoming a lightening rod for every terrible argument you’ve ever heard about ‘generations’ not getting [insert your preferred noun here]. But as his doubles partnership has progressed through the rounds, we’ve been subject to scathing hot takes, both in support and against them. For some it’s led to people calling Nick the Happy Gilmore of tennis, celebrating the hullabaloo. Others, like Kate Halfpenny in the Age explained that the fans were a (and the) problem. That they’d ruined tennis for people who have names that sound like they own boats. You know, the real fans, who knew how to celebrate their stars in the right way. If you’ve got a social media account you’ve seen these views as you scroll by.

Both the Happy Gilmore and Halfpenny takes skirt so close to actually understanding the clash without wanting to say it out loud. The issue here is that Nick and Thanasi are attracting a new groups to the tennis. The people that are not normally at sports like the tennis, or even at sport at all. Unencumbered by the conventions inherited from colonial England and a upper-middle class upbringing, they celebrate and cheer how they want to, how they see fit. As they should. And that grates on the people that like to tell people how to behave.

It’s a defence mechanism. One of the great myths we’ve always told ourselves in Australia is that we are an egalitarian society. And to be fair, on occasion we do strive for this, but whenever marginalised groups (be it socially or economically) try to come into a space that has been ‘saved’ traditionally we get fiery when they don’t behave within the rules that suit those that inhabit that space, no matter the worth of those rules. This makes sense to an extent. Proper behavioural norms keep confrontation to a minimum. And when people do step over the line of expected behaviour, it gives us something to point to appeal to them to not do it again. It’s actually a good thing that these norms exist. On occasion the cheering has become to close to abuse, and it becomes centred on the individual (it’s hard to avoid that in tennis), which takes a nastier tinge that most are happy with. A public conversation about the impropriety of individual abuse, particularly in sport, is definitely one we as a nation should have. But too often it’s about protecting the status quo than about protecting, or including, all of us.

Of course, it’s not just social and economic class clashes that are causing this schism on whether this behaviour is ok. There is another aspect in how Kyrgios in particular plays the game. He’s a self-professed entertainer. Blessed with a talent born but also worked for, he exposes the central myth we all tell ourselves about sport – that the outcomes are all that matters. Instead he plays to entertain, for money, and for the joy we all feel nailing one impossible shot (be it in tennis, the driving range, or practicing half-court hook shots at the local basketball court). He derives joy from doing the (near) impossible, the crowd being amazed, and him being able to peacock. Winning is secondary to this.

Kyrgios draws in a set of fans who aren’t invested in tennis, or perhaps more invested in Nick than the sport. They’re invested in watching someone do amazing things, results be damned. They don’t care so much if he wins; that’s simply a different metric of success. They want him to be him. To express his difference. To rattle some cages so to speak. As per the Happy Gilmore analogy, it’s good for the business of tennis, drawing ratings and crowds to see the spectacle.

But for those for whom the outcome is the only thing, this is hard to take. Suddenly the mythos of the game, the stories we tell of why this players triumph matters, or why this person’s injury is heart-breaking, are tinged. Why does a overcoming outrageous fortune to succeed matter if playing a shot between your legs is valued more? For other players I imagine this is also frustrating. I bet they too feel they could play these shots freed from the chains of competitiveness. But they want to win. Nick doesn’t. Or rather he does, but being entertaining and having fun matters more. It doesn’t help that he too can jump the line of perceived respect for his opponents.

This isn’t a unique experience to Australia or tennis. Around the world as societal structures change people are forced into new alliances and bumping into different people. This dynamism can be a source of conflict but out of that conflict can be something new and better. Building equality and valuing the contributions of everyone in society would make that meeting more common, so we should welcome these discussions that come from making new friends.

How this resolves is anyone’s guess. The history of Australia is littered with the transition greater diversity and the petty skirmishes over cultural territory this leads to. But tennis should get used to it. If Australia is ever successful in living up to its myth of an egalitarian society, with opportunity and access for all, it will mean the way they support their game will change. And that’s a good thing.

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