To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. The first is an early look at 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios in his element.
MELBOURNE—“We’re Aussie, we’re Aussie, we’re Aussie over here!”
The chant went around and around Margaret Court Arena for hours on Thursday night, well before any Australian athletes were scheduled to start playing there. The ringleaders, a familiar pack of professional crazies in green-and-gold paint known as the Fanatics, pointed to each corner of the already-packed stadium and asked for the words to be repeated, louder and longer each time. Eventually, the song reached such a titanic crescendo that everyone started laughing and it fell apart.
For an Aussie, this is obviously not a new phenomenon, and probably not much of an amusing one, either. More than one of the Melbourne natives near me in the audience shook their heads in quiet annoyance at the spectacle—the Fanatics, according to the sportswriters here, are a scourge of the sophomoric. And when you’ve heard them sing KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it,” 25 times in an evening, you begin to understand why.
Yet I liked “We’re Aussie over here,” in part because it was impossible to imagine a crowd doing something similar at the U.S. Open in New York. First, American sports fans don’t know how to chant or sing—at all. Second, the city is too cosmopolitan (and cynical) for something so cheerfully nationalistic. Last year, the audience in Louis Armstrong Stadium chanted Frenchman Gael Monfils’ name when he played the U.S. No. 1, John Isner. From my perspective, Australians have an enviable sense of group identity, with self-deprecating humor as the social glue. It shouldn’t be surprising; there are 350 million ever-diversifying Americans, and just 22 million Aussies. “We’re Aussie over here,” didn’t sound exclusionary to my ears; it sounded like an identity that could be joined in spirit, if you had the right sense of fun. Though the more I heard it, the more I could understand how it wouldn’t sound that way to other sets of ears.
If anything, Australia has an even more well-articulated tennis identity, one that came to define the sport during its amateur era. It can be summed up in the immortal words of guidance given by Roy Emerson to a young John Newcombe when he joined the Aussie Davis Cup team. “Mate,” Emmo said, “when you’re Australian, you don’t come off the court until you’re covered in blood.” (Presumably, the last part was a metaphor.) It’s words like that which let you know why Bernard Tomic, despite being injured against Rafael Nadal in the first round, was booed for retiring after one set. It also explains why his quotes afterward—“I did what was best for me, the audience has to understand that”—went down like a stale Vegemite sandwich.
After Tomic’s betrayal, the Aussie Fanatics were looking for a new young hope to chant for this week, and they had found one, a good one, in Nick Kyrgios. The 18-year-old, who won the boys’ title here last year, is the anti-Bernie, a kid who looks ready to knock down the sport’s walls—or leap over them—to get inside and get his hands on its trophies. From all accounts and all appearances, Kyrgios is determined to take his place in the country’s tradition of sporting tennis champions. Today he wrote in his blog that he could hear the Fanatics chanting for him during the match before his, and that he “lives for moments like that.”
Kyrgios eventually lost to Benoit Paire in five sets, but that didn’t make his world debut any less spectacular. The ex-basketball player showed his soaring athleticism, as well as an arm that’s loose and live enough to bomb serves and create viciously heavy topspin with his forehand. Kyrgios also showed a champion’s self-assurance and a star’s entitled strut. His evening could be summed up by what happened when he reached set point in the first-set tiebreaker. Kyrgios incautiously served and volleyed, and finished the point with a deftly angled backhand volley hit from directly over his head, a shot that requires talent and chutzpah in equal measures. Then Kyrgios walked off the court and immediately complained to the chair umpire that his ice towel wasn’t waiting for him. If the kid is the future of tennis, tennis isn’t going to get any less cocky.
Kyrgios’s father was born in Greece, and his mother is Malaysian. Watching in the press room on TV during the first set, I had thought his cheering section was just the flag-faced Fanatics in the arena’s north corner. But when I went inside the stadium, I could see that he actually had two support groups, the white Aussie Fanatics on one side, and a younger, smaller, but equally boisterous crew, many of them wearing the blue shirt of the Greek national soccer team, on the other side. The white Aussies went through their fast-paced, well-rehearsed, staccato routines—“Oh, Nicky, you’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow my mind,” was fun for a set. Meanwhile, the Greek chorus provided a counterpoint of slow, sometimes soulful, soccer-style chants. Lleyton Hewitt’s fan club had met Marcos Baghdatis’s fan club, and they made for an explosive, infectious combination while Kyrgios was winning. I had never heard that mix before here, but the two must have thrown their voices together when the last famous Greek Aussie tennis player, Mark Philippoussis, was on court. (There are roughly 400,000 people of Greek ancestry in Australia.)
The combination was so explosive, though, that it woke up Kyrgios’ seemingly resigned opponent, Paire. Inspired by the atmosphere, the mercurial Frenchman, pumping his fist and baring his teeth at the Fanatics and the Greek chorus, did something utterly uncharacteristic: He fought back from two sets down to win in five. As Kyrgios said later, Paire enjoyed playing the villain. And once he turned the tables on the hero, Kyrgios’ two fan clubs couldn’t find common ground anymore. They went off in their own directions, chant-wise. The Fanatics grew almost subdued as their man faded and then began to cramp. The Greek Chorus carried on with admirable persistence, but also with an increasing air of futility. At one point, they tried to rally their flag-faced brothers by yelling to them, “Hey sexy fanatics!” Nothing worked. Nicky had gone as far as he could, and so had his supporters.
The match ended the way an Aussie sporting event should. Kyrgios, playing the anti-Bernie to the end, refused to have treatment for his cramps or retire because of them—he wasn’t coming off until he was covered in blood. At the net, Paire put his villain’s role behind him and pointed at Kyrgios, as if to say, “This guy, look out for this guy.” Then he praised both cheering sections, and everyone in the stadium came together to acknowledge the spirit of competition that had lit up the evening so brightly (something else, sadly, that we never do in the States). Afterward, both players said that the other “had really earned my respect.”
From my outsider’s perspective, it felt, while the young hero was riding high, that we were all Aussies over here. When he was losing, it felt, as it probably usually feels, like there were Aussies and Greek Aussies over here. Here’s hoping Nick Kyrgios keeps winning.